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Friday Five: 5 Old English Superstitions about May

The Arrival of MissivesApril may be the cruellest month, but May is the one that has traditionally been given a bad press.

Perhaps it suits the English temperament to look around at spring-time - the rebirth and fresh growth of the lush green land, with rough winds shaking the darling buds - and come up with a list of possible unfortunate happenings that might ruin everything. Or perhaps there's good advice lurking somewhere beneath the surface; I leave it you to decide. So here are five superstitions about May, four of which are warnings, and the final one is more in the way of skincare advice:

1. Don't wash blankets.

The belief that you shouldn't wash blankets in May seems to belong to Southern England in particular, and to be fairly new, from the turn of the twentieth century. Why shouldn't you wash blankets? It's all a bit vague really, attracting a range of warnings from the possibility of blanket shrinkage to imminent death. A proverb from the 1920s states:

Wash blankets in May
You'll soon be under clay.

Removing warm layers from the bed before the weather is reliable leads to feeling chilly, which leads to getting a cold, which leads to death. The same thought lies behind the next superstition on the list.

2. Don't take off any clothes.

Ne'er cast a clout
Till May be out.

This is a much older piece of advice, the first known written version of it appearing in Dr Thomas Fuller's Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs in 1732. Casting a clout refers to taking off your winter clothes, but the phrase 'May be out' might mean the arrival of Hawthorn blossom (the Hawthorn tree is also known as the May Tree) in spring.

The West Country takes it a macabre step further by bringing the possibility of dead babies to the front of your mind with this Cornish saying: 

Tuck babies in May,
You'll tuck them away.

To 'tuck' a baby is to dress it in a short coat. But leaving off clothes was generally thought to be a bad move in the west of England, no matter what time of year, unless it was a Sunday when the prayers of the Church congregation would keep you from catching a cold. Don't go out in public without your warm layers on if you're south of Dorset, basically.

3. Don't Buy a Broom

Here's yet another unpleasantly catchy saying from the West Country, with this Devonshire piece of advice: 

Buy a broom in the month of May
Sweep one of the house away.

There are lots of broom superstitions, from witch transportation onwards, including:

  • Unmarried girls shouldn't step over broom handles or they'll become mothers before they become wives.
  • Laying a broom across a doorway can catch a witch, who will feel obliged to pick it up.
  • Throwing a broom after a person will bring good luck.

Whatever grain of good advice was once lurking within these sayings, May-related or not, has possibly been lost forever.

4. Cats born in May attract snakes

Pity the kitten born in May. Many of these felines never made it to cat-hood because of the superstition that May kittens would be weak and sickly at best. They were held to be useless at catching rats and mice, but extremely good at attracting snakes into the house. A Cornish saying states that: 

Kittens born in May bring adders to the door in August.

Babies born in May were also thought to often be sickly in nature, but probably got taken outside and drowned less often as a result of it.

And now for the skincare advice:

5. Wash your face in May Dew

On 28 May 1667 Samuel Pepys recorded this in his diary:

After dinner my wife away down with Jane and W. Hewer to Woolwich, in order to a little ayre and to lie there to-night, and so to gather May-dew to-morrow morning, which Mrs. Turner hath taught her as the only thing in the world to wash her face with; and I am contented with it.

Dew gathered early on a May morning can, according to superstition, give you a glowing complexion that lasts all year round and even remove freckles. Also, wishing to attract the favour of some young man while gathering May dew will make him your sweetheart, and the benefits don't stop there. It can cure eye problems, spinal weakness, and gout.

However, staying out all night to catch the early morning dew could conceal a different purpose. In 1583 the writer Philip Stubbes recorded that, out of the girls who spent May Day Eve outside in the woods looking for a better complexion, "scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled". Here's hoping they kept their clothes on throughout; casting them off could only lead to a bad end (see superstition number two on the list). Perhaps it's not surprising that they all came home with a certain fresh glow to the cheeks.


Aliya Whiteley's latest novella, The Arrival of Missives (Unsung Stories, May 9th 2016), is set in superstitious rural Somerset in 1920 in the month of May.