May 1 used to have far more significance than it does nowadays. The Celts called it Beltane and celebrated with hilltop fires, around which they danced “sunwise”. Greeting the dawn on 1st May stems back to those Pagan Beltane celebrations, young women believed that bathing their face in the early morning dew on this day was good for their complexion. Dews are common at this time of year as the earth is only just warming up.
Tall, straight trees were cut for maypoles, they were decorated with flowers and coloured ribbons, and raised on village greens as the focal point for the celebrations. The flowers and foliage were often gathered at midnight, an activity known as “bringing in the May” and it gave good cover for other human interactions. The link between May Day and fertility was so strong that in Charles I’s time the Puritans banned the erection of Maypoles and generally tried to supress the celebration. When Charles II returned to the throne on 29 May 1660 some places moved their May Day celebrations to that date and others to Rogationtide.
Rogationtide is not a fixed date but determined by Easter, which in itself is determined by the full moon. The four days from the fifth Sunday after Easter are the Rogation Days, the last of which is Ascension Day (40 days after Easter). The earliest date on which it could occur is 30th April and the latest 3rd June, so essentially it is a May festival. (In Western Churches – Eastern Orthodox churches usually use the old Gregorian calendar).
Ascension Day marks Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven and is the end of the Easter Season. In C5th France, following a series of natural disasters, this day was marked by blessing the fields, animals and people. It later became customary to walk the boundaries of the village to do this, a procession known as “Beating the Bounds”.
In Britain today we have two Bank Holidays in May, one at the beginning to coincide with May Day and one at the end, the “Spring Bank Holiday”. May Day was formally adopted as International Workers Day in 1889, which has sadly overshadowed its earlier purpose, but whatever they now mark, the fact remains that the two long weekends in May provide opportunities for festivities and fairs.
Fairs (or fayres) were traditionally important not only as an occasion for relaxation and entertainment but also for business. Many of the oldest relate to agricultural sales (Priddy Sheep Fair was the longest running having moved from Wells in 1348 because of the Black Death). Hiring Fairs were also common on the quarter days. Several foods are associated with fairs – a sort of porridge known as Frumenty was often served laced with rum. Gingerbread, often in the shape of a man or pig, was always found at fairs but in Florence White’s Good Things in England a complete “fairing” was described as including:
Candied Sticks of Angelica
The history of gingerbread goes back a long way (see Ginger and Gingerbread) and the biscuits known as Cornish Fairings, which have been made commercially since 1886 are actually one of the most modern examples as evidenced by the inclusion of raising agents. Miss Rogers of Marazion in Cornwall who contributed the list of a traditional fairing also noted of the macaroons that they are “quite different from the English variety, much thicker and softer and crumbly, not tough”. I’m not entirely certain what these may have been like as today we distinguish the English Macaroon from the more modern (1900) French Macaron which is a pastel-coloured sandwich of something more akin to a meringue. I doubt these were being served at Cornish Fairs but perhaps they were! Anyway, Florence White’s Macaroon recipe is the English version of the almond biscuit that came from Italy.