May Day, May Day, May Day!

The benefits of a May Day dew facial

Catriona Ni Draoi @Foxglovelane

What of May Day, the first day of May and the first day of summer? Traditionally this was always celebrated in Northern Europe as a chance to say farewell to winter, and an opportunity to have a celebratory bonfire (in some parts of Ireland it is still known as Bonfire Night, whereas the English save that expression for 5th November, being Guy Fawkes Night).

It is also the subject of some lovely customs, many of which lasted longer where the Celtic traditions remained strong, rather than elsewhere. Take the charming custom of washing your face with May dew. The 1652 book by a Dr Gerard Boate entitled ‘The Natural History of Ireland’ says this of the custom:

“ The English women, and gentlewomen of Ireland… did use in the beginning of summer to gather good store of dew, to keep it by them al the year after for several good uses both of physick and otherwise, wherein by experience they have learnt it to be very available.”

The collecting of dew would take weeks of preparation. In April, May and into June the girls would get up before the dawn, go to the green fields (wheat was best) and harvest the dew – either with their bare hands, or more especially by spreading a sheet out over the moist grass, and then wringing it out and collecting it in a glass jar. This would be topped up every day, and for the whole year would sit in the sunlight by a suitable window. Every few days the concoction would be purified by carefully straining off the water so as to leave behind any sediment, dirt, or other impurities. And so, after nearly a year in which the freshest of fresh waters was imbued with sunbeams, it could be splashed on the face! Dr Boate’s book opined “The dew, thus thoroughly purified, looketh whitish, and keepeth good for a year or two after.”

The distillation was at its most powerful if applied before sunrise on 1st May, and in an age when we consider it beneficial to rub avocado extract into our hair, or spread unmentionable products over our skin to prevent wrinkles, who is to say that a spot of early morning dew water is not just as magical in its properties?

The practice gave rise to the riddle

I washed my face in water

That had neither rained nor run,

And I dried it on a towel

That was neither woven nor spun.

The answer lay in the fact that having washed your face in dew you always allowed it to dry in the fresh air – you would hardly go to all that trouble and then wipe it off afterwards!

This custom was by no means limited to the uneducated country poor – it was also favoured by ladies of fashion and has in some cases been transported, and lives on in at least one household in the United States. This blog recalls the fact that in one particular family the girls always set their alarm for six in the morning  on May 1st so that they can run outside and rub their faces in the morning dew on the lawn!

Among the anticipated benefits of applying dew to the face (or even better, naked dew rolling!) was that it would prevent freckles, sunburn and wrinkles. It could prevent headaches, and even walking barefoot through the dew would ease bunions and callouses as well as preventing corns! For some reason it also enabled the person concerned to have greater dexterity in untangling nets, ropes, or freeing knots from string and thread. (Memo to self: get up early on 1st May and roll around in the buff on the neighbour’s  lawn – I don’t have one so his will have to do!).

There are many other splendid May Day traditions in Ireland and I look forward to reading of others. Meanwhile I acknowledge the assistance given in “The Year in Ireland”  by Kevin Danaher.

Comments about this page

  • Rub your hands in the 1st of May and you will be able to undo any knot that comes your way!

    By Suzanne (01/05/2022)
  • It’s may 1st 2021. Through my childhood our neighbor would help us celebrate May Day traditions. Wash your face in the morning dew and a maypole would be set up on a telephone pole. I don’t do the maypole but have continued to wash my face in the dew and still do! I’m 68

    By Pat (01/05/2021)
  • My mother (mostly Dutch and a little French ancestry, from central Ohio) told us on May first to rub morning dew on our faces and say “May, May wash my freckles away”.

    By Jack (03/05/2017)
  • Definitely not just the habit of country ladies – it’s something I watched my mother, a Londoner by birth, do on many May Days in our suburban garden and always in quiet defiance of any raised eyebrows from her family or neighbours! A delicious practice that I myself am proud to keep alive.

    By Lizzie (30/04/2012)
  • Quite magical! Am especially keen on the facial which I could do with, so I will be collecting my morning dew for sure!

    By Catherine (25/04/2012)
  • The thoughts of rolling around naked on MY neighbours lawn makes me laugh (very tempting alright), I’d love to do it but I don’t think they would appreciate it very much. Still, might chance it anyway

    By op (25/04/2012)

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