Most traditional May customs have two key elements, fortunately both still available to enjoy even in lockdown: walks and flowers. Not only the summer festival of May Day, but also the celebration of church feasts which often fall in this month – Rogationtide, Ascension Day, and Whitsun – have historically involved some form of going out into the countryside and bringing in flowers and greenery to decorate at home.
The history of popular May customs suggests that anything can be decked with flowers in May. People would make May garlands to carry in procession, to decorate churches, or to hang above the doors of the house. In the Peak District, Ascension Day is still marked by the tradition of well- dressing, decorating wells with intricate patterns of flowers.
There was a pretty custom in the 19th century of children making “May Dolls”: dressing their favourite doll in its best clothes, laying it in a bed of flowers in a cardboard box, and carrying it around the neighbourhood to show it off and collect a little money.
Parades and processions may be off this year, but we can still try to replicate their spirit. Why not try a DIY Rogationtide walk in the week leading up to Ascension Day?
Rogationtide is a season to ask for God’s blessing on the land and future harvest, and used to be known in England as the “Gang Days”, literally “Walk Days”.
The ancient custom is to walk the course of the parish boundaries, with regular stops for prayer and “beating the bounds”, gently hitting something to mark the boundary-point (usually trees and walls, but some- times any accompanying children).
These summer country walks were celebratory and playful, but their purpose was serious: to fix these boundaries in collective memory and to encircle the whole community with God’s protection and blessing.