Be that as it May

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   January 24, 2019

You probably know that the last four months of our calendar are wrongly named. “Sept,” “Oct,” “Nov,” and “Dec,” mean, in Latin, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th, whereas those months are actually our ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth. How did this happen? – and, even more to the point, why, for two thousand years, has nothing been done about it?

It all goes back to the ancient Romans, who, for reasons of their own, meddled with their existing calendar and inserted two months named to honor their head honchos, Julius Caesar (July) and his nephew and successor Augustus (August). This of course threw the whole calendar off, and years which once began, rather appropriately season-wise, in March, now had to hatch virtually in mid-winter, in January.

In the intervening two millennia, various attempts have been made to reform the calendar and re-name the months. The French Revolutionaries thought up rather poetic names appropriate to their seasons, such as the autumn month of Brumaire (“mist”) and the summer month of Thermidor (“heat”). But this whole system was too logical for a world which clings to its old ways, and was abolished, after only 12 years, in 1805.

Indeed the only person since the Romans who had the clout to re-do the calendar and make it stick was a Pope – Gregory XIII, (hence our current “Gregorian” calendar). Even he didn’t dare to try re-naming the months, but he did, in 1582, jiggle their lengths, and the re-shuffle required 11 days to be completely dropped. This in itself was so radical that, for centuries, the change was not adopted in some countries, especially non-Catholic ones, including England – where, when it was finally made law in 1752, there were actual riots, with people carrying banners reading “GIVE US OUR ELEVEN DAYS.”

Fortunately, despite all the hubbub, we were still left with the month of May, and all its happy associations. In parts of the world with marked seasonal changes, people also generally change their outdoor clothing according to the season. In England, where the weather is notoriously erratic, the transition from Spring to Summer, and so into lighter clothing, has produced some sage advice, in the form of a proverb which says, “NE’ER CAST A CLOUT TILL MAY BE OUT.”

“Ne’er cast a clout” means “don’t ever shed a garment” – particularly your winter woolies. But unfortunately, the meaning of the latter part of the adage is not so widely agreed upon. Some people think that “MAY” is the calendar month – so you shouldn’t dress for summer until June comes in. But there is an alternative theory that “MAY” is the plant called the “May Flower,” or the “Mayflower,” which in England blooms, or comes “out” in Spring – which would probably give you a chance to cast your clouts a few weeks earlier.

Of course, to Americans, the word “Mayflower” immediately connotes the vessel which brought the first English settlers to “New England.”

But “Mayflower” was already a popular name for ships, just as the month of May and its flowers were popular as heralding the approach of summer. There was indeed the ancient tradition of dancing around a “May-pole.” And it was Shakespeare in one of his most famous sonnets (the one which begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) who spoke of “the darling buds of May.” Actually, the whole point of that poem was that even summer has its imperfections (such as the “rough winds” which “do shake” those darling buds) whereas the poet’s Beloved has none.

The chief shortcoming of summer, as Shakespeare saw it, was that it doesn’t last – while his Beloved will, at least in this poem, last forever. And that brings to mind another honoree of that special month, the MAYFLY – an insect whose chief claim to fame is that its life in its mature stage is extremely short – rarely more than 24 hours. It has thus become a sort of poster-child (or poster-insect?) for the brevity of existence.

On the other hand, May is celebrated more joyfully, with such occasions as Mothers’ Day. Never mind the strange fact that Anna Marie Jarvis (1864–1948) who, worked tirelessly and successfully to have Mothers’ Day observed as an official holiday, later became so disgusted with its commercialization that she organized a petition to have the holiday rescinded. She died, alas, in a Sanitarium, where, it is said, the bills to keep her there were paid by the Greeting Card Industry.


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