The Merry Months of May and June
by Mel Robertson
MONTH OF MAY which has just passed has always been described as "Merry", a word with many meanings ranging from being joyous to being drunk. Many ancient customs are associated with the month of May and, since it was the time when crops were planted, fertility rites and practices took young lovers out of the snowbanks and into the ploughed fields.
May Poles became a standard erection in many countries where, on the first of May, groups of young men and women holding coloured ribbons danced around the pole until it was wrapped in an array of colours. A "May Queen" was selected to rule the revels. This was a great honour that was referred to in many poems. One such poem was typical of Victorian sentimentality. It contained the words "Wake me early, Mother dear, for I am to be Queen of the May". Then, in keeping with the maudlin sentiments of the time, the young girl died in her sleep and everyone had a good cry as they danced around the May Pole. Fortunately, other poetry of the time included joyful trips to the fields to gather "May" which was the name for hawthorne.
Other unusual uses of the word "May" include "Mayday", the international distress signal; "Mayhem", the crime of maiming a person; as well as mayonnaise, mayor, mayoralty, etc. It is also interesting to note that "May Day" used to be the big Communist day of celebration when Communist countries paraded their military might and threatened their neighbours. In England the word "May" is given to university examinations, boat races, Mayfair, May flies, etc.
In the late 180()s and early 1900s, the month of May inspired many operettas such as "Maytime", "Blossom Time", "Rose Marie", etc. These always included a chorus of pretty girls twirling parasols and prancing choruses of young men brandishing swords or beer steins. The young ladies always sang about winning all the handsome young men while the chorus of men always vowed to impose their will not only on all the young women but also on anyone in the world who disagreed with them. The only exception to this was in "Rose Marie" where the male chorus was composed of Mounties who declared that, instead of imposing their will on the young ladies, they "Would get the men we're after".
In every operetta of this nature there was always a duet between the leading lady and the leading man. Usually these were Janet MacDonald and Nelson Eddy whose melodious singing could be heard on almost every musical radio program. I do not criticize these operettas for, as a person who sang in the McMaster University Male Choir and Gilbert & Sullivan presentations, I have always enjoyed part-singing and choral music and such old tunes as "Springtime, Lovetime, Maytime" and "Blossom Time" still ring a happy chord with me.
Canada does not have any special "May" celebrations of its own but follows some that are observed in other countries. Two of these are "Mothers Day" and "Victoria Day".
"Mothers Day" originated in the United States in 1907 when Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) started the day by having a memorial service to her deceased mother to which she provided 500 carnations - her mother's favourite flower. Anna Jarvis worked hard to have "Mothers Day" declared a national day and, on May 8, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made the second day in May to be the official "Mothers Day". This spread quickly and I can recall as a child that on Mothers Day we wore a coloured flower if our mother was living and a white one if she was deceased. "Mothers Day" should not be confused with the English "Mothering Sunday" which is an ancient holiday on the fourth Sunday of Lent when young people who are engaged in work some distance from home can come home. Lenten sobriety was abandoned on "Mothering Sunday" and considerable festivity prevailed.
Our other big May celebration is on May 24, or Victoria Day, which honours the birthday of Queen Victoria. This has always been a day for letting off fireworks of various types.
People may wonder if Queen Victoria would have been "amused" by these celebrations, for most people, if they happen to think of Queen Victoria, think of her as a rather fat little person with a grim, unsmiling face. However, Victoria had an unpublished amusing side to her life. She adored her husband, the Prince Consort, had nine children by him, and, after his death, had his night-clothes laid out every night and his shaving things every morning. Moreover, she delighted in playing practical jokes on visiting dignitaries. One of these was to put Sedlitz powders in chamber pots, thus creating an intimate explosion at the most unexpected time. In addition, after the Consort's death she became close to her Scottish attendant, John Brown, whom she permitted to criticize her choice of dresses and to address her as "Woman".
I have written about early Burford May 24 celebrations and I will not repeat myself. However, I must admit that I get a laugh when I read old news reports describing the "Night Shirt Parades" that took place at the dawno^May24 for many years around the turn of the century. Then groups of young men vied with each other to see who could create the largest explosion. Some of these became so window-rattling that they had to be stopped. These explosions started the "Night Shirt Parade" which set out along King Street either from the east or west end. They were led by the Burford Brass Band and, as the parade progressed, some men leapt from bed and joined the parade in their night shirts. Women, of course, never took part but observed the "indecent exposure" from behind drawn curtains. Looking back, it is hard to understand how a village that would prevent leaf-burning on Sunday or prosecute the school principal for picking his pears on the "Sabbath" would allow such an event to take place.
Another May event that was not advertised but was of some importance to children was the annual arrival of ice cream. This may sound silly in 1999 when ice cream can be obtained at any time of the year and at any hour of the day. However, before the days of electric refrigeration ice cream was hard to keep frozen. Children looked forward to the day in May when the ice cream sign appeared in front of Murdens (now CIBC location) and George Armstrong's (now Greenwood Meat Market). Then kids would hound parents for five cents to get a cone or hope that, in the evening, their folks would take them for "a dish of ice cream" at George Armstrong's ice cream parlour. It was a time to be remembered.
A May event of much less importance was the annual bragging contest between boys to see who could be the first to swim in the creek. Every May day in earlier times boys would ask kids who lived near the creek if it was warm enough for a swim. Then one day, with a certain amount of shivering, some boys would sneak their bathing suit out of the house in their school bag and hike with some trepidation to the creek. There they would do a quick leap in and out of the water and return to the corner of King and Maple bragging outrageously and trying to hide the fact that they were still covered with cold-induced "goose bumps". Parents were never told about these icy "dips" for the regular warnings of "Don't get your feet wet" was on a par with the most dire of warnings and threats.
June has also been considered a "merry" month, and probably with more justification than May for it is the month of real pleasant summer before the scorching days of July and the dry, hot, worn-out feeling of August. June was the month of big church weddings with Bob Hamilton's shining Surrey carriage and prancing horses bearing happy couples to the local railway station where, amid crowds of cheering, confetti-throwing friends, they took one of the local "expresses" to Niagara Falls. Garden parties flourished almost every night with huge spreads of delicious food, the Burford band playing "Love's Dream", and Charlie Douglas in full Highland costume singing "Roamin in the Gloamin". Afternoon "Strawberry Socials" crowded many lawns while ladies with parasols drank tea and men put on white duck trousers to play tennis at the parsonage. People turned out in hundreds to see the local Dragoons entrain for Summer Camp and sing hymns of farewell as the troop train departed, not for war, but just for a couple of weeks at camp near Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Another June celebration that we no longer celebrate is the birthday of the reigning monarch which usually came about the first Monday of the month. This holiday, like Christmas, has fallen prey to "Political Correctness" which demands that anything which might offend a two-person political, religious or sexual group in Canada must either be abolished or renamed. In the case of the Queen's birthday, Canadian politicians feel that they have made a great stand for independence by abolishing it. However, in the past the "Queen's birthday" was a welcome holiday in the early summer that encouraged family or church picnics at Mohawk Park, Port Dover or Sunnyside. Some of these events involved the hardworking Burford Band which led the picnicers into the park with crowd-pleasing music, and reading about them can create a feeling of happiness, kindness and friendship. Replacing this is the recently created "Fathers' Day" on the third Sunday of June when fathers are given another tie.
The most ancient celebration in June is on June 21. I1 is known as "Midsummer Day" but is actually the first day of summer. It is a holiday mainly observed in England where people gather at such ancient sites as Stone-henge near Salsbury to see the sun come up over the Heel Stone. People pretending to be Druids or ancient priests conduct religious rites of some sort. Unfortunately, in recent years "Midsummer Night" at Stonehengehas become a modern "Rave" with people spray-painting graffiti on the ancient stones and conducting themselves in ways far from the traditional activities. As a result, Stonehenge has been fenced in and has lost a lot of its mysticism. However, musicians will recall Mendelsohn's beautiful music for Shakespeare's "Midsummer's Night Dream" which he composed as a teenager.
June has always been a month of academic interest. In former days, junior students at Burford Public School welcomed it as the beginning of two months' respite from the "Boot-Camp" discipline that prevailed with the two daily parades, shouted orders, marching, strapping, shaking and "bawling out" -things which are not countenanced today. Senior Public students looked forward with awe and consternation to the "Entrance Exams" that had to be passed before "High School" was achieved. In High School there were the "Departmental Exams" with the ceremonial opening of sealed examination papers and the presence of the Paris High School principal to ensure honesty and suitable sobriety. I doubt if such feelings still prevail for, as the grandfather of several grandsons, I know that the present academic year is full of delightful trips, outings and special class events and, unless the student of today has innovative and active parents, the end of June cannot be considered a beginning of summer freedom but rather the onset of boredom.
June has inspired many poems about love since it was easy to rhyme it with such archaic words about love as "moon", "spoon" and "swoon". No one "swoons" or "spoons" in 1999 and for someone to "moon" at someone is hardly a romantic act. So, looking out my .window on this beautiful sunny June day, I will end this article with the line, "What is so rare as a day in June then if ever come perfect days".