MAY is sometimes called the month that begins in spring and ends in summer.
It has certainly been like that this year. The first few weeks of the month were cold and rather wet with unpleasant north easterly winds. But in the past week things are starting to improve.
I live in a cold part of the country and I had to delay taking plants like runner beans and courgettes out of the greenhouse and planting them in the garden because of the danger of night frosts. Now when I’m digging out the planting holes I can feel on the back of my hands that the soil is gradually warming up. It also has a good moisture content because of all the rain earlier in the month. The result is a sudden explosion of growth, not just in the garden but also in the surrounding countryside.
The intense green of leaves that have just emerged from the bud and the wild flowers make driving slowly along narrow country roads a great pleasure. The hawthorn blossom was late this year but now it’s making up for lost time, although the best of the may blossom will be in June.
This paradox is, of course, the fault of Pope Gregory XIII who was worried about the effect inaccuracies in the old Julian Calendar were having on the date of Easter. He brought in his reformed Gregorian Calendar in 1582, but it was slow to catch on. Protestant countries thought that it was some kind of Popish plot and resisted the longest. The British Empire, soundly Protestant, didn’t accept the obvious superiorities of the new calendar until 1752. In that year Wednesday, Sep 2 was followed by Thursday Sep 14, which confused a lot of people.
In Ireland the Pope’s new calendar was accepted much earlier by Catholic rebels. The authorities frowned on it, but many Irish people secretly celebrated the ‘new’ Easter long before 1752. And there are still some relics of the old Julian Calendar, including the fact that, at least up until recently, accountants and the tax man started their year on the rather odd-looking date of Apr 6.
Anyway, under the old Julian Calendar things like may blossom and the mayfly neatly coincided with the month. Nowadays they appear in the second half of May and the first half of June.
The old English proverb ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May is out’ suffers from the same confusion. Although it doesn’t seem to appear in print until around the time the British adopted the Gregorian Calendar, it is almost certainly much older and refers to the old calendar. There is argument about whether it means the month of May or whether it refers to the opening of the blossom.
In medieval times it was quite common for people, particularly children, to be sewn into their warm winter underwear in the autumn and have it cut off in the spring (yes, they had little flaps for performing bodily functions). ‘Clout’ is an old English word for cloth or clothes, so this proverb is a recommendation that you should not take your underwear off before ‘May is out’.
If it means the month then, under the Julian Calendar, you would have to keep your underwear on until what is now mid-June, which seems excessively cautious. If it means the blossom that would be about six weeks earlier, which seems more likely.
Anyway, the month is nearly finished and the blossom is well and truly out so you should be quite safe. Take off as many clothes as you wish and get out and enjoy the cow parsley, the bird song, the baby rabbits in the lush new growth of grass and everything else that makes this such a great time of year.
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