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

Postscript

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!