Last week we explored the widespread superstition that it was unlucky to marry in the month of the May, and we traced this age-old belief back to the Romans. Due to the Roman festival of Lemuria, which was to placate the shades of the unquiet dead, being held in the middle of May, the whole month was considered unlucky for marriages. However in the annals of folklore, the fifth month was ill omened for a variety of other activities too.
In Scotland, where they placed much store in the old proverb "marry in May, rue the day", it was also said to be hazardous for a young mother to be weaning her children in this month too. Possibly this too derives from the same ancient beliefs that the rites of Lemuria tainted the month, for there was a more widespread belief that children born in May were destined for ill-luck. Many folkloric sources that warn it is unlucky to marry in May add the sinister line that children born in this month "die in decay", holding that "a May baby is always sickly, you may try but never rear it". A common taunt to those unlucky enough to be born in this month was "you are but a May cat".
And what pray tell is a May cat? Well, obviously these were kittens born of the fifth month, and like their human counterparts they too were held to be sickly and weak. Indeed the May malaise touched other branches of the animal kingdom too, with May ducklings being said to be more likely to sprawl and in Dorset it was said that colts born in the May would have the unfortunate habit of lying down in any water you tried to ride them through.
But it is the humble cat who gets the worst share of folklore here. For in addition to being sickly, May cats who did survive had the widespread reputation of being somewhat useless. According to many sources, a May cat would not make a good mouser, with many holding that not only would they be rubbish at keeping down the local rats and mice, but would also bring venomous reptiles, worms and snakes into the house instead. In some places it was even said that is was May cats that would creep into beds and cots and steal your breath away...
Again this is possibly related to the rites of Lemuria. Cats were popular pets in ancient Rome, and were associated with the Diana, goddess of hunting and Libertas, the goddess of freedom. Furthermore they were the only animals allowed in the temples, hence as the temples were closed during this Roman festival possibly this is why cats born in May are ill omened, having being denied the presence of the gods. However given that the superstitions about May cats are localised to the British Isles, perhaps we shouldn't be stretching back to the Classical world, and instead looking for connections closer to home.
Certainly in British folklore, May is a hazardous month. For example, you've postponed your wedding, are not expecting a child, and even the cat is not having kittens so surely you're safe to get on with a bit of housework and make ready for the summer... Wrong! Stop right there! Firstly leave that winter bedding in place! "Wash blankets in May, you'll soon be under clay" says the lore of Oxfordshire, while in Bristol it is said "wash a blanket in May, wash a loved one away". Ok so we're leaving the bedding alone! How about getting some lighter clothes for the summer? Well, that is out too - "don't cast a clout, until May is out" says an old British proverb - "clout" an old English word for "clothes".
Now the reasons for these strictures and taboos on changing bedding and garments in the month of May we can trace to a different origin than ancient Roman festivals of the dead; indeed it is perhaps the origin of much of the other lore of ill luck in May too. And like many thing in the British Isles, it comes down to the weather! The clearest indication, and indeed explanation comes from an 1852 publication, The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine Almanack, where it is written -
We warn young persons during this month not to throw off their warm clothing too suddenly, as in this changeable climate we often have a day of sunshine followed by a day of rain and hail. Many are the deaths by consumption, the seeds of which have been sown by this pernicious practice.And there we have it - from sickly kids and kittens, to keeping cosy blankets and coats - all these forms of ill luck in the fifth month we can attribute to the changeable weather in May. Now for years it was thought that it was just an old wives' tale that getting cold can lead to catching a cold, but recent scientific research has shown that there is truth in the old saying. For, in basic terms, when your body has to work harder to regulate your temperature, your immune system becomes less effective; in particular the body's heat saving device of constricting blood flow means there are less white blood cells in the blood vessels to fight incoming germs and viruses.
Naturally infants are more prone to infection, and by getting caught out in cold weather, by not having your winter coat or having ditched the winter bedding, adults are at risk too. And as we don't commonly associate May with a time for colds, flu or infections, to fall ill in this month was seen as bad luck. Hence in the case it turns out that the dire warnings about the month of May are founded not in superstition or ancient rites, but based on practical observances that folks were at risk of falling ill at an unexpected time of the year.