May is a lovely month filled with all sorts of holidays and the arrival of beautiful weather. In Europe, May has traditionally been viewed as the last month of spring, whereas in Great Britain May is the first month of summer. In any case, in the northern hemisphere, most of the worst weather has disappeared by May, and the world is filled with gorgeous peonies, irises, pansies, magnolia blossoms and the deliciously scented freesia. We can also begin feasting on apricots, artichokes, all sorts of lettuces, mangoes, pineapples and other fresh fruits and vegetables that we can continue to enjoy through the long, warm growing season.
Many celebrations also take place in May, some ancient and some modern. The very name of the month derives from Old English, Old French (Mai) and Latin (Maius,) referring to the month dedicated to the Roman earth goddess, Maia, wife of the god Vulcan. The name Maia is translated as “she who is great.” Early Christians often associated May with the Virgin Mary, a tradition that continues into modern times. The British Victorian poet Gerard Manly Hopkins refers to this tradition in his poem “The May Magnificat,” dated 1878:
When I was a child, we celebrated May Day on the first day of the month by making May Baskets, filling them with fresh flowers and hard rock candy and delivering them early in the morning to the porches of our neighbors. There was no commercial aspect to this charming little custom. We made the baskets ourselves out of construction paper and glue, and we cut the flowers, usually lilacs, out of our own yards. We also danced the Maypole Dance, several girls together, moving in a circle to weave long crepe paper streamers around a pole. I learned later as an adult that Maypole dancing was an ancient pagan fertility rite originally performed around a tree. Sadly, because of its “pagan” origins, Maypole dancing was forced out of favor by literal-minded party poopers, and the custom seems to have disappeared almost entirely. I loved Maypole dancing and never thought of it as anything but a beautiful celebration of spring.
Today, May 1 is associated with the labor movement and is known as International Workers’ Day. As a retired worker myself, I certainly feel solidarity with the workers of the world. If only International Workers’ Day also included some springtime fun like folk dancing, eating rhubarb pie or making and wearing flower leis, as is the custom on May 1 in Hawaii. Or maybe someone should nominate “The Anvil Chorus” from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera, Il trovatore, as the theme song for International Workers’ Day. This zippy and memorable tune as sung by a group of Spanish gypsies extols the joy of hard work as the men wield their hammers at dawn and look forward to the day’s labors.
Coincidentally, May 5 is also a special day in Japan. A national holiday since 1948, but celebrated since ancient times, Kodomo no Hi, or Children’s Day, honors children for their individual gifts and personalities and wishes health and happiness to all children. Traditionally, this holiday was celebrated on two separate days as Boys’ Day and Girls’ Day. Boys’ day was May 5, and Girls’ Day, or Hina Matsuri, was celebrated on March 3 with elaborate displays of male and female dolls, parties and special foods such as rice crackers and chirashizushi, raw fish and vegetables served over rice.
Traditional Boys’ Day decorations include large streamers or kites decorated as colorful carp and hung outside the home, one kite for each boy in the family. As the wind blows through the streamers, the carp appear to be swimming, a symbol of the strength of boys. Special foods for Boys’ Day include sweetened sticky rice dumplings, some served as balls on skewers (kushi dango,) and some filled with sweetened red bean paste (kashiwa mochi.) Boys’ Day is still celebrated on May 5 in Hawaii and among Japanese American families living in California. We used to hang a carp kite on our porch every Boys’ Day for our son David when he was a child.
None of these charming May holidays receives as much attention as Mother’s Day, celebrated annually in the U.S. on the second Sunday of May. This year, Mother’s Day falls on May 12. This is a relatively new holiday which only became official in 1914 when Woodrow Wilson signed a presidential order proclaiming Mother’s Day a national holiday.
The driving force behind making Mother’s Day a holiday was Anna Jarvis (1864-1948,) a community activist whose letter writing campaign brought her vision to fruition. Anna was devastated by the death of her own mother, Ann Jarvis, an anti-war advocate who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the Civil War and worked to unite the mothers of these soldiers in friendship. Anna’s wish was to honor her own mother and to encourage other sons and daughters to celebrate their love and appreciation for their mothers.
One of the biggest supporters of Anna’s cause was the florist industry, and it was not long, even during Anna’s own lifetime, that the holiday became so overly-commercialized that Anna came to regret ever having promoted this holiday. She detested not only the florist industry but also the producers of greeting cards and chocolates and referred to those who profited from Mother’s Day as “…charlatans, bandits, pirates and racketeers.” Anna felt that the purest way to celebrate Mother’s Day was to write a long, hand written letter to one’s mother expressing love and gratitude for all of our mothers’ specific acts of kindness. She felt that people who would stoop so low as to purchase a pre-printed greeting card were just too lazy to express their love for their mothers in their own words. Anna even went so far as to initiate a door-to-door petition to rescind the holiday. If she could only see Mother’s Day now, Anna’s horror would be complete.
My co-author, Kathleen, and I take a more cheerful view of Mother’s Day, although we do encourage our readers to devote some of their own time and energy to honoring their mothers rather than just purchasing gifts or cards. Our “Mother’s Day Tea” in the May calendar section of this website is an example. This menu provides our readers with the opportunity to create a truly elegant Afternoon Tea with their mother as the guest of honor. Kathleen’s fabulous Pink Champagne Cake is literally the icing on the cake of this menu and will make your mother feel like the queen she truly is.
Although my mother, Betty Simon Murdock, died in 2010, I will think of her on Mother’s Day as, in fact, I do every day. I received countless precious gifts from her that continue to inspire and sustain me year after year. She was a gentle and peaceful soul and a good listener, but she carried within her a burning passion for education and life-long learning. She earned her Ph.D. at the age of fifty after raising me and my older sister and brother, Margaret and John. She read to us from the time we were born, and our house was always filled with books. All three of us could read before we started kindergarten, thanks to our mother, and our love for reading has been one of the strongest bonds holding us all together.
When we were children, our mother taught the fourth grade in the public school we all attended. In fact, my fourth grade classroom was right next to hers. There was never any noise or rowdy behavior going on in her classroom. Her students all seemed to be paying attention and enjoying themselves. I would even go so far as to say that my mother was a sort of mystical child whisperer to whom children were drawn, even those who didn’t know her. I remember as a child sitting next to my mother in a Saturday afternoon movie matinee only to discover when the lights came on that there was another child who had moved over in the darkness to sit on her other side. That was not the only time something like that happened. She seemed to exude an eternal calm that made children feel safe and protected. She was the antidote to the drama queens of today.
In addition to teaching me to love reading and giving me permission to approach life without fear, my mother introduced me to music. She was a pianist, church organist and cello player with a fondness for the classics. She is the one who introduced me to “The Anvil Chorus,” playing it on the old upright piano in our living room. I also learned to love “The Triumphal March” from Aida, “Pomp and Circumstance” and all sorts of other beautiful pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and so many others, just because she played them at home. Though I have no talent for music, I love listening, another gift from my mother. As an adult, one of my greatest joys has been attending the symphony and the opera with my husband. When he took me to see Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I was so excited I almost started hyperventilating as we climbed up the stairs from the lobby to our box.
For those of you with spiritual inclinations, Ramadan begins in May, The Wesak Festival (or Buddha Day) takes place in May, and Memorial Day and Ascension Day round out the month. And May is a month when Earth’s energy moves upward, with birds in flight and blossoms emerging from the ground and the trees. It’s a lovely month for watching clouds and stars and enjoying the full moon the night before Mother’s Day.
The glow is even louder than always,
Humming with birds, with insects,
With cats crouching in the azalea.
The aura in the sky is a rose window
Circling all the world.
There is a secret stirring from leaf to leaf
And an unexpected warmth.
Somewhere in the deep water, just darkened,
A heron stands, gathering;
Then comes the moment of flight.
Banoffee Pie is a simple combination of only five ingredients: pie crust, sweetened condensed milk, fresh bananas and whipped cream mixed with a tablespoon of light brown sugar. This festive pie can be made by any novice baker and is best eaten on the day it is made, as day-old bananas tend to turn color. Do not make the mistake of buying evaporated milk, as the sugar in sweetened condensed milk is crucial in turning the baked milk into toffee. Read this recipe over carefully before you start, as you will need a little over three hours to complete your Banoffee Pie, and you will want to manage your time accordingly.
- 2 cups canned sweetened condensed milk (21 ounces from 2 fourteen-ounce cans)
- Pinch of salt
- Boiling hot water
- 1 (9 inch) frozen pie shell or 1 round of refrigerated pie dough, such as Pillsbury Pie Crusts
- 3 large ripe bananas
- 1 ½ cups chilled heavy whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
Makes: 8 servings
Preheat oven to 425° F
- Place the oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425° F. Pour the sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated milk) into a 9-inch deep dish pie plate and stir in a large pinch of salt. Cover the pie plate with foil and crimp the foil tightly over the plate and under the rim. Put the covered pie plate in a large roasting pan and add enough boiling hot water to reach half way up the side of the pie plate. Do not let the water touch the foil. Bake the foil covered condensed milk for about 2 hours, refilling the pan to halfway with boiling water about every forty minutes until the milk turns a deep golden caramel color. The milk will become toffee as it bakes.
- Carefully remove the pie plate from the water bath and transfer the toffee to a medium sized bowl, scraping the pie pan with a rubber spatula. Chill the toffee, uncovered until it is cold, about 1 hour. Place the large mixing bowl and the electric mixer beaters in the freezer to chill.
- As the toffee chills, clean the pie plate and bake the pie crust according to the package directions. Cool the pie crust on a rack, about 20 minutes. When the toffee is cold and the pie crust has cooled, spread the toffee evenly in the crust and chill, uncovered for 15 minutes.
- Remove the large mixing bowl and the beaters from the freezer and, using an electric mixer, beat the chilled whipping cream, mixed with 1 tablespoon of packed light brown sugar, until soft peaks form.
- Place the whipped cream in the refrigerator while you remove the toffee-filled pie crust and slice the bananas, about ¼ inch thick, over the toffee filling. Mound the whipped cream over the bananas with a rubber spatula and serve the Banoffee Pie immediately or chill up to 3 hours.