May has long been a month devoted to the Blessed Virgin in various ways, including May crownings in churches and May altars in homes. Many parishes will crown statues of Mary this month. Others will have processions of children during Mass, who will come up to place flowers at the feet of a statue of Mary.
No one knows exactly why May became a month to honor Mary. Only one of the 16 Marian liturgical feasts is celebrated this month — May 31, the feast of the Visitation. And, despite the similarity in names, May is not named for Mary. Instead it is named for the Roman goddess of spring, Maia. Maia was known as Bona Dea, the “good goddess,” and was a patron of both fertility and chastity.
May Marian devotions date back at least to 13th-century Spain. They became popular in Italy soon after. In the 14th century, the German Dominican mystic, Henry Suso, began weaving crowns of flowers to adorn statues of Mary. And, in the late 18th century, a Jesuit priest in Rome called for Marian devotions to be practiced during May to help end immorality among students in Rome.
By 1750, public devotions honoring Mary were common events in Europe.
The rose is probably the most common flower honoring Mary, since one of her many titles is “mystical rose” (rosa mystica). However, countless other flowers honor Christ’s mother: from the purple violet (called Our Lady’s Modesty) to the royal sword flower of the iris, which honors her seven sorrows.
In England, one flower used as a traditional mayflower is the hawthorn (called the whitehorn, may blossom, maythorn or just plain “May”). One legend is that Joseph of Arimathea travelled to England after Jesus’ ascension. When Joseph arrived at Glastonbury, he planted his walking staff into the ground. It sprouted leaves and grew into a hawthorn tree. The modern version of this tree, called the Glastonbury thorn, blooms in both spring and near Christmas.
This Sunday, look around your church and see how the statues of Mary are adorned: with candles or crowns, with vases of roses or a special white or gold veil. As this May blooms, many of our parishes still have Easter flowers in abundance, reminding us of the eternal spring of Jesus’ resurrection. As we look at statues or paintings or glass windows of Mary, we can only imagine Mary’s joy when she saw her risen son on a May morning long ago.
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of “Linking Your Beads: The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers.”