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varied much at different times and places so much so indeed that it is impossible to give anything like an accurate account of all the changes.
The May-pole was made sometimes of oak, at others of elm, and at others again of birch, painted yellow and black in spiral lines, and ornamented at the top with a flag. In some parts of the country it was suffered to stand untouched the whole year round.
At Oxford, and the custom does not seem to have been confined to that place, Aubrey tells us, “ the boys doe blow
cowshorns and hollow canes all night; and on May-day the young maids of every parish carry about their parish garlands of flowers, which afterwards they hang up in their churches." Hearne derives this blowing of horns from a custom they had amongst the Greeks and Romans, as well as amongst the Jews, of using the horn for a drinking cup, and in proof thereof gives sundry quotations from Homer, Nonnus, and the scholiasts on Nicander. All this learning is wasted to very little purpose; the mere fact of its being a cheap instrument of noise, to be procured with very little trouble, would sufficiently account for the use of it without going to the Greeks and Romans.
Some classes, such as the milkmaids and the chimneya sweepers, have in particular assumed this day for a distinctive festival; or, what is more likely, they continued to celebrate it long after it fell into disuse with their neighbours. The first of these have in most parts discontinued their peculiar Mayings, though Strutt, who wrote little more than seventy years ago, says, “the Mayings are in some sorte yet kept up by the milk-maids at London, who go about the streets with their garlands and music, dancing.” Misson, too, but he is of yet earlier date, has described the same thing, and more minutely—“ On the first of May,” he observes, " and the five and six days following, all the pretty young country girls that serve the town with milk, dress themselves up very neatly, and borrow abundance of silver plate, whereof they make a pyramid, which they adorn with ribands and flowers, and carry upon their heads instead of common milk-pails. In this equipage, accompany'd by some of their fellow milk-maids and a bagpipe, or fiddle, they go from door to door, dancing before the houses of their customers, in the midst of boys and girls, that follow them in troops, and everybody gives them something."
The plate here alluded to, was in many, I believe, in most-instances borrowed from some pawnbroker at so much per hour, and always under bond from responsible housekeepers for its safe return. In this way the same plate and garland would be let out to different parties in the course of the day, one set hiring them from ten till one, and another from one o'clock to six. Those who could not afford this display, had recourse to a custom much more
simple and beautiful. A cow, selected no doubt for the superiority of her personal attractions, was tricked out for the occasion, as fine as flowers and ribbons of all colours could make her; they were twined about her horns, her neck, her tail, and even garlanded the rope by which she was led, while a net, with similar ornaments interwoven, was flung across her back, as though she had been a lady's palfrey. In this state the cow was paraded along in triumph by a pretty country girl, quite as gay as herself, with flowers and ribbons, the mistress marching at her side in like fashion. Nor is it many years since this primitive and pleasing show might have been witnessed within the sound of the old abbey-bells.
Many superstitions belong to May-day in practice that do not appear to have any necessary, or natural connection with it. Thus, the month itself is held to be unlucky for the solemnisation of marriage, an idea probably derived to us through Popish times from the ancient Romans. To bathe the face in dew that lies upon the morning grass will on this particular day be as beneficial as the bath of beauty in the fairy tales. Divinations also of various kinds are practised. In Northumberland they fish with a ladle for a wedding-ring, that has been dropped into a bowl of syllabub, the object being to prognosticate who shall first be married. It would seem, too, that a species of divination was practised with snails. This was done by strewing the hearth with white embers, placing a snail upon them, and from the lines traced by the creature in its progress, imagining some letter which was to correspond with the initials of the “secret love."