Thursday, April 30, 2009

Brewing Up Magic

(The latest installment in Eberle's Women's Art is Women's Work series is appropriate for May Day eve, as you'll see)

Then came the blue-eyed spring, flinging forth over the land the blossomy robes of her glory; and we were to have a May-pole on the green, and a pleasant picnic, the first of May. This was a time-honored custom at Ryefield.
Louise Chandler Moulton, This, That and the Other (1854)

The connection of food with sacred celebrations goes back as far as the eye can see and probably farther. Hot Cross Buns are inextricably intertwined with Good Friday, and the mince pies we associate with Christmas used to have a hollow on top, centuries ago, to hold a figure of the Christ child. Those in power recognized the potency of these food traditions during times of power struggles involving religion. Queen Elizabeth I in 1592 attempted to ban the sale of Hot Cross Buns because of their Papist overtones. The Puritan spirit of Oliver Cromwell’s ban on cooking mince pies during Christmas crossed the Atlantic in 1659 and many New England towns banned mincemeat pies at this time. Restrictions on Christmas food continued in New England for over two decades.

Some holiday rituals involving food, like the Christmas Eve wassailing of the orchards, contain connections with more ancient ritual. May Day, a popular celebration with the English since medieval times, grew out of the Celtic celebration of Beltane. Eggs and milk were prepared in various ways for Beltane, and a special oat cake was baked, with no steel implements to be used in its preparation or baking-- a tradition observed up to the end of the nineteenth century. Many May Day and Beltane rituals are associated with agriculture, since May—also known as the Month of Three Milkings—was the month when cows would be turned out to fresh pasture. Women would deck even the humble milk-pail with flowers, as Jane Barker mentions in The Lining of the Patch-Work Screen (1726). The garlands that women wove on May Day for the cows they tended had protective powers; similarly, a special cheese was made on this day and kept throughout the year, a charm of protection.

May Day

THE village bells ring merrily,
The milk maids sing so cheerily,
With flow'ry wreaths and ribbons crown'd,
Now May Day comes its annual round;
The may-pole rears its lofty head,
Round on the turf they dance and play;
Mrs. John Hunter (1742-1821), Poems (1807)

In addition to May Poles, there were May Boughs and May Bushes, decorated with garlands and colored egg shells. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women claimed parts of the May Day celebration for themselves, perhaps because of the central role of their milkmaid predecessors. May Day was thought to be a propitious time for divination, and groups of young women would flock on that day to wells, dropping objects into them in order to see into the future. They would go hunting together for snails and bring them home—tracing, in the trails the snails made through flour sprinkled on the threshold, clues as to their own destinies. They would go wandering into wooded areas to find plants with special significance and uses—the hawthorn and the sweet woodruff. The pictures that emerge from these descriptions have one constant: that is, groups of women running off by themselves—at midnight and before dawn—away from their homes. We all know how heady that can be. You can still hear the chorus of these ghostly flocks of women of the past: “Here we come gathering knots in May, knots in May, knots in May” (knots meaning buds.)

Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-1838) describes a dream, a vision appearing on May Day eve, that draws on the connection between May Day and women. She saw:

A fairy castle, not of those
Made for storm, and made for foes,
But telling of a gentler time,
A lady's rule, a summer clime.

The Golden Violet (1827)

Divination, magical protection, visions of a peaceful future—women’s involvement in domestic arts is related to their connection with magic and witchcraft. The histories of ritual or holiday foods reveal that cooking in itself contains elements of magic—it is no coincidence that witches are described as accompanied by a cooking pot thinly disguised under the name of cauldron.

Learning to control processes like leavening with yeast, distilling, fermenting, boiling to the proper stage for making candies or jellies, and preserving—whether drying, pickling, or bottling—bears a definite semblance to the work of alchemists. Although we think of Home Ec class as distinctly separate from Chemistry class, they started out in much closer association. With this one difference, however: if you fail your chemistry lab no one gets hurt, but you’ll poison your friends and loved ones if you give them improperly preserved vegetables or meat. Mince pies, in fact, developed as a way of preserving meat without salting or pickling (the brandy in mincemeat acts as an antibacterial agent as well as a flavoring.) The crusts on early pies were thick and closely sealed and not meant to be eaten—pies were actually an early form of the press-and-seal bag.

Women as household managers used to have to produce, in addition to food and drink, many of the cleansers used in the home as well as a stock of medicines and salves. Lydia Child in her 1832 household handbook The American Frugal Housewife details home-made remedies for conditions ranging from sore throat and ear ache to dysentery and paralysis. She gives specific directions for gathering plants from the wild:

Balm-of-Gilead buds bottled up in N.E. rum, make the best cure in the world for fresh cuts and wounds. Every family should have a bottle of it. The buds should be gathered in a peculiar state; just when they are well swelled, ready to burst into leaves, and well covered with gum. They last but two or three days in this state.

Beauty treatments were a natural by-product of home pharmaceuticals, and these could be closely allied with enchantment as well. On May Day, women would rise early and go into the woods to collect dew from flowers and plants. Bathing in this dew was said to give long-lasting beauty. Of course, it could have been just another excuse for running off to the woods.

One flower gathered on May Day found its way into a May Day wine or punch—sweet woodruff. This is a low-growing hardy ground-cover that blooms early in the spring. It spreads rapidly, so try starting a patch in your own garden in a lightly shaded spot. Sweet woodruff is often planted under grape-vines because of its association with wine; also, the woodruff flowers bloom before the vines leaf out, and the summer grape leaves provide the needed shade.

Recipe for May Day Wine or Punch (from the Joy of Cooking by Rombauer and Becker):
Gather twelve sprigs of sweet woodruff and place in a bowl along with: 1 ¼ cups powdered sugar, 1 bottle Moselle or other dry white wine, 1 cup brandy. Cover the mixture and let stand for 30 minutes, no longer. Stir contents of bowl thoroughly and pour over a block of ice in a punch bowl. Add 3 bottles Moselle, 1 quart carbonated water or champagne, thinly sliced orange, sticks of pineapple, and sprigs of fresh woodruff.

(Authors’ note: If you go out frolicking into the woods with your friends after drinking this and nothing happens, you will know you have a stronger head than your dairymaid sisters of yore.)

Pictures from the top:
A Swedish maypole
Pirosmani: Woman Milking a Cow
Kate Greenaway: May Day
Letitia Elizabeth Landon
A Home Ec class, Glendale High School 1949
Lydia Child
Sweet Woodruff


  1. completely delightful post. you've reminded me of how much i've always wanted to decorate a may pole with my children. maybe we'll do that today and snap some photos.

    i'd love to have a copy of that 1832 book - frugal housewife.

    also, the balm of gilead - available in only one part of the world - thought to be an anecote for severe snake bites/spider stings. i love this hymn, and i love the metaphor of Christ as the Balm of Gilead - the anecote for split hoof's sting.

  2. Hi Jen:

    That would be fun--the maypole. Eberle & I played music for a wedding last year that incorporated a maypole dance as part of the reception. I'll tell you, as one providing the background music it seems like those damces go on forever!

    I don't know if The Frugal Housewife is available in "book" form, but as you can see it is available thru Project Gutenberg.

    & I also am fond of the old spiritual "Balm in Gilead."

  3. We used to have a May pole celebration back when I was in early grade school, complete with a decorated pole and streamers, which we held as we skipped around it. That tradition sadly faded away.

  4. Hi Willow:

    That's interesting, & much different from the touch football & kickball games I remember!

  5. I remember Maypole dances, too. Thanks to Eberle for a very interesting post. (especially because it inspired my own post for May 1).

  6. A good post. I remember May Day celebrations at school. I once danced round the maypole! I think I remember making a mistake and weaving my ribbon under when it should have gone over - or vice versa. Apart from that, and what a warm day it was, I only recall my pristine white shoes and shorts.

  7. Hi Sandra & Dave:

    It sounds like I missed out on something-- Eberle told me she too danced the maypole when in grade school. Dave: When we played that wedding reception with the maypole dance the system of over & under looked quite elaborate-- I can see how someone could get fouled up. Sandra: Great-- I'll look forward to your May Day post!


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