May Folklore in Southern Appalachia

Dorothy Zimmerman, as Spring, crowning Irma Sweeney as the May Queen at the May Day festival at the Neighborhood House, Washington, D.C., 1925]

May is a magical month around the world, filled with superstitions and omens and tales. I grew up being told some of these and may first was always the perfect time to go barefoot. Some families refuse to go barefoot until May 1st. The tales and superstitions of the Irish and Scottish followed them over into these hills and many of them have remained. The first of May was all about security: securing your home, your luck, your fortune, and your future!

Here are some of the practices and folklore that have survived in Appalachia.

• On the night before May 1st, go out to a field and lay out a white handkerchief. Then in the morning before the sun rises go back our to the field and wait until the sun has fully risen; then hold the whit hankie up between you and the sun and it’s said you’ll see the initial(s) of your true love made by the dew that has soaked the fabric.

• Lay out a white hankie tonight and leave it until the sun rises. Then use it all year for healing.

• Anoint and cross yourself with milk on May morning for good luck and good health.

• Never give away food or anything, don’t lend it either otherwise it’ll keep going out the door for the rest of the year.

• Go outside and find a piece of money, preferably a quarter. Set it right outside your front door until morning; following the basis of the previous, let this be the first thing you bring in before you take anything out and you’ll keep money coming in.

• Be careful of sharp objects: cuts and wounds made on this day are slow to heal and quick to scar.

• If you look down a well on May Morning before the sun hits the surface of the water, you’ll see the person you’re destined to marry.

• Another variation of the above specifies you look into the well exactly at 12pm noon. Your pick really.

• Find a snail on May morning, get a plate and sprinkle a light dusting of corn meal in it. The trails the snail makes throughout the day are said to predict your future love’s initials or occupation.

• Wash your face in the morning dew before sun-up and you will be beautiful. I’ve also heard this done to prevent sunburn for the rest of the summer!

• Wash your face, belly, and buttocks in the dew at the same time as above for fertility.

•The first animal you see on May morning will predict the color hair, eyes or complexion of your future love.

• Aliments are said to be healed immediately if the morning light on May first is shown upon it through a crack, either in the wall or curtain. A lot of times this was specifically done as a cure for thrash or thrush in children but I’ve heard of it being done for other reasons.

• If a girl wishes to know the name of her future husband, she must pick a dogwood flower and wear it in her breasts on May morning and the first man she meets wearing a white hat or tie with have the name of her future love.

• Visitors outside of the family aren’t allowed to enter the home on the first of May for fear they’d steal the luck of the home away. However beggars were entertained and welcomed in and fed, in the belief they would bring good fortune. But don’t let that be the only reason nor the only time you help those in need!!

• It is unlucky to lend fire (matches, lighter, coal) on May Day.

• You won’t have any luck for the year if the first person you see in the morning is a red headed woman.

• Christmas will fall on the same day of the week as May Day.

• I heard once growing up that a lot of people, even folks who ain’t catholic will make a wish and pray to the Virgin for something all day on the first day of May and it would be granted.

• Carry a used horseshoe nail all day on May 1st in your pocket and you won’t loose money from it all year.

• Seeds planted before sunrise won’t be bothered with insects.

• However, I have heard that May is the worst month to plant and beans cause they won’t grow or amount to anything.

• If it snows in May, it is collect and the melted water is used to get rid of fleas.

• May was also the month that abortive medicines were administered, said to best be done in the odd numbered months (Jan, March, May, July, etc.)

• On May Morning, crack an egg into a white porcelain cup and you may see an image of your future love.

I do believe that’s enough tales to get those gears running and planning something “special” for tonight or in the morning! Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed these tales.

Check out the rest of the blog to learn more about the Appalachian folkways and byways of magic and medicine!!!

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Photo found on Libraryofcongress.gov

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