The “Mary” Month of May

Ireland by Alex Gindin

Why is May considered a Catholic month of dedication to Mary? This post investigates that question from an Anthropological perspective. It delves into broader issues of Springtime and the multifarious influences of this seasonal change on humanity. The leitmotif of this post is that Springtime involves a great deal of sexual reproduction and many of us do not like to mention this. This pressure to sublimate the sex out of the season makes May more anthropologically interesting.

The title of this post plays on,”The Merry Month of May”, a poem by Thomas Dekker (c. 1572–1632), an English playwright that indexes “The Spring Rite”. The Spring Rite Dekker references is Beltane, a grand Celtic festival that marks the high point of Spring and the coming of summer. Beltane has motivated much art.

Robert GouletJulie AndrewsRichard Burton, and the original Broadway cast of Camelot

Camelot, the 1960s musical best known for being linked to the Kennedy presidency was another opportunity for pop culture to highlight the potent power of May. In this version of The Lusty Month Of May, performed by Julie Andrews, plays very obviously on the temptation of this time of year.

It’s May! It’s May! That gorgeous holiday, When ev’ry maiden prays that her lad, Will be a cad! It’s mad! It’s gay! A libelous display! Those dreary vows that ev’ryone takes, Ev’ryone breaks. Ev’ryone makes divine mistakes, The lusty month of May!

The Lusty Month Of May

But the excitement of May is not always welcomed with open arms. For example, the normally avant garde French had real trouble accepting classical music’s embrace of springtime change. When Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring Ballet premiered in Paris in May 1913, there was a riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in response.

Incidentally, the following clip starts with the particularly poignant music that set everyone on edge in 1913. This is Yuri Possokhov’s gripping interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a that premiered during the 2013 San Francisco Ballet season.

San Francisco Ballet
in “The Rite of Spring”

Beltane has also inspired some classical anthropology. In The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, anthropologist James Frazer argued that Beltane, the May 1 Spring Rite and Samhain, the November 1st Winter Rite were the two most important parts of the year for Celts, who were descendants of the pastoralists of the Pontic–Caspian steppe. The subsistence patterns of pastoralists involve a major effort to move their herds in the Spring.

These patterns put them at odds with their indigenous Europeans neighbors who, as agriculturists, followed a subsistence pattern that emphasised the Fall harvest. And since the Roman Empire was agriculturally based and Christian, the era of Spring celebrations were in decline. This same trend continued when Europeans migrated to the New World, where, under the strain of Puritan values, there is almost no reference to the phallic Maypole and its lovely fertility Maypole Dance tradition.

If you are or have been a Catholic middle or high school teacher, you know that May is a big deal. On the one hand, it is a month of devotion to the BVM, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. But it is also a time when managing students becomes more challenging. For those of us on the Northern Hemisphere, Springtime’s fruitful proliferation unravels in the form of student exuberance. They want the year to end, they want to be outside for recess longer and they come back to class sweaty and preoccupied with the jouissance of the season.

 Teacher explaining optical calculations 1970 by Immo Wegmann

What you may not know is that this problem is not new. The May devotion to the Virgin Mary originated in the late 1700 at one of the Jesuit’s first high schools, the Roman College established by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus.

The facade of the Roman College, Established 1551

“The May devotion [to our Lady] in its present form originated at Rome where Father Latomia of the Roman College of the Society of Jesus [the Jesuits], to counteract infidelity and immorality among the students, made a vow at the end of the eighteenth century to devote the month of May to Mary. From Rome the practice spread to the other Jesuit colleges and thence to nearly every Catholic church of the Latin rite (Albers, “Bluethenkranze”, IV, 531 sq.). This practice is the oldest instance of a devotion extending over an entire month.”

Catholic Encyclopedia, “Special Devotions for Months”

I draw your attention to the phrase, “to counteract infidelity and immorality among the students“. Although this may sound overly harsh to some, I believe it is more indicative of the desire of both students and teachers to end the school year and start the summer! Coincidently or syncretisticly, this could also be a reminder to the young that Spring is upon us and a chaste attitude has its merits, at least until the school year ends!

Syncretism is an anthropological concept that refers to the blending to two distinct cultural traditions. Holy Trinity Church Ramsgate has a fantastic desprion of this on their website, which I will cite heavenly here:

Mary Month – Why May?
Some have pointed to the fact that, in classic western culture (both Greek and Roman), May was recognized as the season of the beginning of new life. In the Greek world, May was dedicated to the goddess Artemis and associated with fecundity. Roman culture linked the month of May to Flora, the goddess of bloom and blossoms – this led to the custom of ludi florales (or floral games) which took place at the very end of April as a preparation for entering into the month of May.

It seems that this ancient tradition of connecting May with new life and fecundity, led to a realization that May is very much the month of motherhood – this may be the reason why Mother’s Day is celebrated during May not only in the United States but in many countries and cultures of both the East and the West…

…The connection between motherhood and May led Christians eventually to adopt May as Mary’s Month. May is the Month of Our Lady precisely as the Mother of God. So wrote the [Jesuit] priest-poet Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his marian classic “May Magnificat.”

Holy Trinity Church Ramsgate


Although today is also Mayo Day, Ireland’s International day of celebration of the 3.5 million people, like myself, with roots in Ireland’s western county, the word “Mayo” derives from the Irish, “Mhaigh Eo” meaning “plain of the yew trees”, and not Mary.

Another common misunderstanding is the Coast Guard’s distress call, MAYDAY “MAYDAY MAYDAY”. This was derived from the French m’aider (i.e., short for “help me”) as a solution for French and English radio controllers in the 1920s. Although it has nothing to do with Mary or Spring, helping each other is always a good note to end upon, in any season!

Intellectual Bricolers or Trouble Makers?

The current debate about the role of technology in the classroom is a challenging one to follow.  Initially, computers were thought of as a panacea that would improve scores. Then, a backlash came when kids were found to be “screwing around”* with those very devices rather than “learning”.  Now, I’m seeing a third wave where some people are realizing that not all “screwing around” is actually “screwing around”.  There are many skunksworks that clearly illustrate that some forms of organized disobedience can sometimes be very productive and profitable.  But one does not need a major corporation to innovate.  Creativity can be found in “the street” as well.  William Gibson’s famous dictum “the street finds its own uses for things” (“Burning Chrome“, 1981) points to the power of human ingenuity in adverse disempowered contexts like poverty or “American adolescence”.  Lévi-Strauss’ use of the term “bricolage” is a more classical version of this observation.

What is “bricolage” you might as? Wikipedia’s correct when they say bricolage is “borrowed from the French verb ‘bricoler’ – equivalent to the English “do-it-yourself”, the core meaning in French being, however, “fiddle, tinker” and, by extension, “make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand (regardless of their original purpose)”. 

My research puts me contact with adolescents (middle school students) who “screw around” with robotics and “pre-engineers” (college students) who “fiddle, tinker and create” technology. 

What would happen if our analysis started considering those adolescent kids ‘technological innovators’?  The kids’ transformation from “trouble makers” to “intellectual bricolers” would improve our knowledge base by realizing that some very creative things come from the minds of the disempowered.  This would also improve the educational preparation of students to the degree that they would potentially realize that their “play” is actually “work” in another context.


*[Use of the term “screw around” originates from Garfinkel, “Consider that once you get into line persons will not therein question that you have rightfully gotten into line unless you start screwing around. Then you get instructed” (2002: 257).  Follow this link to better understand how Garfinkel’s  “screwing around” links to this discussion via a discussion of Varenne’s “productive ignorance”.]

Six million years of bipedalism: Apperently not enough time to learn to stay out of my way?

Being that I, James Mullooly, am 100% of Irish decent, and being that I live in Fresno, I spent St. Patrick’s Day in San Fransisco. The Bay Area has a long tradition of Irish Immigration that will never be forgotten, no matter how much one drinks!! I blogged about TheAnthroGeek’s St. Patrick’s Day journey to San Fran elsewhere, but my main issue for this entry concerns human conveyance in crowded areas.

I admit to being a little claustrophobic and having personal space issues. I’ve lived in far more crowded areas than San Fransisco (like Kingston, Cairo, NYC, Bamako), so its not that I cannot handle crowds; rather, it’s that I do not understand them. This is not a good thing for a social scientist to admit to but there you go.

Being “TheAnthroGeek” that I am, I consulted the great compendium of knowledge that is the glorious field of Anthropology to better understand my predicament. Breaking news out today suggests that we have been walking for far longer than previously assumed. With all this practice we’ve had, you’d think navigating the streets of San Fransisco would be easier. Brian Richmond and William Jungers published their findings in the March 21 issue of Science (link here for an abstract or to today’s US News and World Report for news about it). Common anthropological sense placed hominid bipedalism at around 3.5 million years ago.

But even though we apparently had an extra few million years practice at walking, we still cannot do it without a great deal of dancing, bumping, apologizing and gazing. Although most may not consider this work, ask someone with agoraphobia about that – it is work, you can call it “social work” or the “work of culture” if you like as long as you look at it as labor. This was the main thing on my mind while jostling/being jostled along the streets of San Fransisco a few days ago.

Now back in Fresno, a place of wide parking lots, few trees and lots of elbow room, rare is it that I need to do that little minuet required of when two humans share a space too small for their requisite intimacy expectations.

John O’Donohue passes

John O’Donohue was an Irish poet and philosopher beloved for his book Anam Cara — Gaelic for “soul friend” — and for his insistence on beauty as a human calling and a defining aspect of God. Before his untimely death this year, he spoke with Krista in our studios. And so this hour has become a remembrance of him. But John O’Donohue had a very Celtic, lifelong fascination with what he called “the invisible world.” And he would also surely see this also as a serendipitous continuation of his life’s work — of bringing ancient Celtic wisdom to modern confusions and longings.