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So Green

May 2, 2014 | by

Semik_crop

Semik, a Russian lubok from the nineteenth century.

You never really get over secret childish chauvinism about your birthday month. At least, I never did. In my mind, May will always be the best month of the year; emerald, the best birthstone; and lily-of-the-valley, the finest flower. (On the subject of Taurus, I am agnostic; I have always resented the fact that we are supposed to be stubbornly rolling around in velvet or something.)

Because my own birthday falls so early in the month, and because I was definitely on the “preciousness” spectrum, my eighth birthday had a May Day theme. I knew little of the day’s ancient roots or traditional practices, let alone its adoption by the labor movement. But I had a Tasha Tudor book called Around the Year that featured young girls, flower garlands, and a beribboned maypole, and I was sold.

For my birthday, we gathered flowers, made May baskets, and left them on neighbors’ doorsteps while we hid nearby. They must have been very confused. Although my parties were generally homespun affairs, on this occasion my mom hired a gentleman in Renaissance dress who played a hurdy-gurdy while we danced around a maypole that a friend’s dad had constructed from a birch trunk. We were all terrified of the hurdy-gurdy man, and kept our distance.

“The Merry Month of May” was written in 1599 by the prolific playwright and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker. Dekker was widely considered a wastrel and a hack—Ben Jonson dismissively called him a “dresser of plays about town”—and he spent seven years in debtors’ prison. But his pastoral is one of the most enduring paeans to the fifth month. Somehow I doubt it was in the hurdy-gurdy man’s repertoire.

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green!
O, and then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my Summer’s Queen.

Now the nightingale, the pretty nightingale,
The sweetest singer in all the forest quire,
Entreats thee, sweet Peggy, to hear thy true love’s tale:
Lo, yonder she sitteth, her breast against a brier.

But O, I spy the cuckoo, the cuckoo, the cuckoo;
See where she sitteth; come away, my joy:
Come away, I prithee, I do not like the cuckoo
Should sing where my Peggy and I kiss and toy.

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green;
And then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my Summer’s Queen.

 

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