For those of us in Europe, May represents the end of winter and the beginning of warmer, longer days. Some will be furiously tidying gardens and in my case dosing up on antihistamines as the air fills with pollen! It's an obvious period of transition and for millennia the promise of summer has created a wide variety of traditions and symbols.
[Photo by Blcksprt via commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87669254]
This story begins back with the ancient Greeks who dedicated the month of May to Artemis, the goddess of fecundity. In the 2nd century an entire month named after the goddess, Artemision, was a non-working holiday at Ephesus- the photo above is from her temple there. Artemis was the mother-goddess, connected to childbirth, pregnancy and hunting. She's also identified with virginity (hunting demanded sexual purity before the hunt) which connects with her strength and independence. Romans also claimed May to honour Flora, the goddess of bloom or blossoms. They celebrated “floral games” at the end of April and petitioned Flora’s intercession for all that blooms.
As Christianity spread existing traditions and ideas became folded into the new culture. By medieval times, customs centering around winter's end or expulsion were still very common, as evidenced by the rich traditions surrounding the Maypole (or Maibaum,Majtræ, Meiboom...). During this period, the tradition of Tricesimum, or “Thirty-Day Devotion to Mary,” came into being. Also called, “Lady Month,” the event was held from August 15-September 14 and is still observed in some areas. August 15 marks the Assumption of Mary when, according to many traditions, Mary was received into Heaven.
[Meeting of Mary and Elisabeth - Marx Reichlich (1460-1520]
May 31st also marks the day of the Visitation, when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visited Elizabeth, pregnant with John. Elizabeth also responded to and recognised the presence of unborn Jesus, and thus Mary exercised her function as mediatrix between God and man for the first time. More commonly, the day centers on Mary's mission of charity and the intense symbolism of motherhood. Mary is Mother, not just of Jesus but of us all. Hence it seemed fitting that the May should the Mary's month and it was consecrated as such in 1724.
It was in fact one of the first months to be "given" in such a way, demonstrating Mary's importance to the Catholic Church. It's worth knowing the other months: January has been the month of Jesus since 1902; March, the month of Saint Joseph, since 1855; June, the month of the Sacred Heart since 1873; July, the month of the Precious Blood since 1850; August, the month of the Immaculate Heart of Mary; September, the month of Our Lady of Sorrows since 1857; October, the month of the Rosary since 1868; November, the month of Souls in Purgatory since 1888; December, the month of the Immaculate Conception. In all, that's five months of the year devoted to Mary, of which May is first. Popular use of May, however, didn't really start outside Italy until the 18th Century.
Many churches around May time will have special May Altars with Mary at the centre and lots of floral decoration, often yellow roses. This flower symbology is quite potent. Churches use flowers as a kind of architectural counterpoint- the buildings are immobile and, in every sense, stiff. Flowers give church space life. But they are often worth looking out for in antiques as well. We occasionally see home altars with similar flower arrangements like this one. Jesus is often shown with red roses, even used under a crucifix like this statue of St Therese here. Although we may associate flowers with femininity this is a modern affection. Look at this statue of Joseph, for example.
St Joseph is nearly always shown holding lilies. The lily is a symbol of purity but several legends state that Joseph was selected to be Mary’s husband after his staff “blossomed”—a sign from God that he had chosen the young man for this responsibility.
Joseph was, of course, a carpenter and is the patron saint of workmen. One of his feastdays is 1st May, which means that May begins and ends with Jesus' parents.