In the year 1919 the "May children" came round for the last time with their "songs" and garlands. This pretty village institution, which I can remember from my earliest years, was no doubt a very ancient one ; it was interesting from its old-world aspect.
The school-children always made a round of the village on May-day, carrying their "May-poles" and garlands. The former were usually nothing but large bunches of wild-flowers, sometimes mixed with a few from cottage gardens, and roughly tied to the top of long sticks ; though occasionally a more ambitious attempt was made at something in the nature of a real garland, which consisted of two hoops carried on a pole between two little girls. Arrived before the house, the "songs" began. These were two in number and of the most primitive description. They ran thus :-
"Here's my garland, fresh and gay,
Please to remember the first of May."
Followed by :-
"April's gone out and May's come in
This last was sung over and over with great rapidity. It was a sort of chant upon middle C rising suddenly to G upon the syllable "gar" and dropping back to C at "land."
Each child was usually rewarded with a penny.
May Day, 1929
This morning four of our village children have come round with their "May-poles" singing the two old songs. But I fancy this will be the last time. I told them that these old customs were fast dying out, but that I hoped they would never forget them, but recount them to their grandchildren. I asked them on every May Day to sing over the old chants and so keep them in their memory.
It is only recently that this useful and pretty custom has gradually been allowed to lapse here. In former years the elder children always, and often the whole family party would turn out into the harvest fields to glean, or to lease as it was always called here. Indeed the word glean was unknown to most of the children. I have never heard any explanation as to the derivation of this word, but (as a suggestion of my own) may it perhaps come from the old French lesser, to let, leave, or relinquish ?* I think some must formerly have been confused by the allusions in the Psalms to those who "seek after" or who "speak leasing." A considerable quantity of corn was often obtained by leasing, which after being ground at the mill was converted into home-made loaves, thus supplying a sufficiency of bread for the whole winter.
*Johnson's Dictionary gives derivation from Lesen (Dutch) and adds quotation from Dryden. The word lease was used in Sussex and possibly elsewhere in this sense. In some places the ringing of the Church bell was the signal to begin.
The sweet spring days have come and gone
The summer time is almost o'er ;
And autumn waits to crown the land
With all her rich and golden store.
The sun is low in western skies,
The dew lies cool upon the grass,
The harebell bends her graceful head
To let the gentle breezes pass.
And by the margin of the wood
Where cornfields catch the sunset's ray
The song of reapers breaks the calm
That falls upon the dying day.
And little children, too, are there,
No heavy sheaves their hands have bound,
Yet, scattered o'er the harvest plain
Some golden ears they still have found.
And when the children home return
With little weary aching feet
The mother will look up and smile
And press each lip with kisses sweet.
Dear child, 'tis not for you to stand,
Out in the wide world's great highway,
Where God's strong servants seek to win
The wanderers to His fold to-day.
Yet if you are the Saviour's child
A little gleaner you may be,
And He will own each deed of love
And say, "Ye did it unto me."
It may perhaps be of interest to learn what games were played by the village children here down to the year 1918, especially so, as it is to be anticipated that they will eventually become obsolete.
The most popular of these are :
Oranges and Lemons.
Sally, Sally Wallflower.
Here come three knights a-riding.
Here we come gathering knots of may
(Corrupted into "Nuts in May.")
Here we go round the mulberry bush.
I sent a letter to my love.
Ring a Ring of Roses.
London Bridge is broken down.
I believe that the origin of most of these games dates very far back into the past. "London Bridge is broken down" is believed to carry us back to between the years 1176 and 1209, and is supposed to refer to the time when this bridge was first constructed in stone-work in lieu of wood.
A dear old woman here (since dead) used to tell me how in her youth it used to be the custom for a young maiden to steal out alone at Hallowe'en, and with a sprinkling of hemp-seed in her hand, wander close round the Church, softly singing the following lines, whilst casting the seeds -
"Hemp-seed I scatter, hemp-seed I sow;
Let him that is to be my true love
Come after me and mow."
when it was supposed that her future husband would appear. It is not difficult to perceive how this forecast would contain the elements of its own fulfilment.
This same old woman used to recount all this so prettily, with a ring of pathos in her voice and a little gleam of light in her grey eyes. She told how she wandered forth towards the Church with beating and expectant heart, and yet a little shyly.
"I used to be very fond of reading love stories," she said. "There were not many in my day, and the older folk did not think them suitable for us young ones. I used sometimes to slip one of these into the bosom of my dress and steal out alone to the end of our garden by the well, and there 'dream' a little and read quietly by myself. Not that I was able to do so very well."
I always regret that I never asked her whether Henry N., the woodman (her future husband), ever appeared to her at Hallowe'en.
Since writing the foregoing I have through the medium of Notes and Queries and the Guardian obtained some further information on the subject of "Hemp-seed." An allusion to this custom may be found in Burns' poem, "Hallowe'en." The ceremony did not necessarily take place in a churchyard. Sometimes it was in a stackyard.
This version gives:-
"Hempseed I saw (sow) thee,
hempseed I saw thee, and him
that is to be my true love come after
me and pou (pull) three.
Look over your left shoulder and you will see the appearance of the person evoked, in the attitude of pulling hemp."
See also the lines in Gay's Pastorals about 1715 :
"At eve last midsummer no sleep I sought,
But to the field a bag of hempseed brought;
I scattered round the seed on every side
And three times in a trembling accent cried -
'This hempseed with my virgin hand I sow
Who shall my true love be the crop shall mow.' "
Dr. Brewer in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable quotes the saying that to have some hempseed in your pocket means to have good luck on your side in the most adverse circumstances. He derives it from the French expression "Avoir de la corde de pendu dans sa poche." It seems to be a common idea that hemp-seed brings good luck. Possibly the seed sown by the girl is supposed when mown by her lover to form a cord that shall bind her to him.