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May-Day, Old Style And New Style
by [?]

“Now the bright morning star, day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flow’ry May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.”–Milton.

On the whole, perhaps, May is the most beautiful of the English months, especially the latter half of it; and yet I suppose very few May-days come round on which we are not disposed to wonder why our ancestors did not choose a warmer, and indeed a more flowery season for Maypoles and garlands and out-door festivities.

Children who live in the north of England especially must have a painfully large proportion of disappointments out of the few May-days of childhood.

Books and pictures, old stories told by Papa or Mamma of clattering chimney-sweeps and dancing May Queens, such as they saw in their young days, or heard of from their elders, have perhaps roused in us two of the strongest passions of childhood–the love of imitation and the love of flowers. We are determined to have a May-bush round the nursery-window, duly gathered before sunrise. “Pretty Bessy,” our nursemaid, can do anything with flowers, from a cowslip ball to a growing forget-me-not garland. The girls are apt pupils, and pride themselves on their birthday wreaths. The boys are admirably adapted for May sweeps. Clatter is melodious in their ears. They would rather be black than white. Burnt cork will disguise them effectually; but they would prefer soot. A pole is forthcoming; ribbons are not wanting; the poodle will dance with the best of us. We have a whole holiday on Saints’ Days, and the 1st of May is SS. Philip and James’.

What then hinders our enjoyment, and makes it impossible to keep May-day according to our hopes?

Too often this. It is “too cold to dawdle about.” Flowers are by no means plentiful; they are pinched by the east wind. The May Queen would have to dance in her winter clothes, and would probably catch cold even then. It is not improbable that it will rain, and it is possible that it may snow. Worse than all, the hawthorn-trees are behind time, and are as obstinate as the head-nurse in not thinking the weather fit for coming out. The May is not in blossom on May-day.

And yet May-day used to be kept in the north of England as well as in warmer nooks and corners. The truth is that one reason why we find the weather less pleasant, and the flowers fewer than our forefathers did, is that we keep May-day eleven days earlier in the year than they used to do.

To explain how this is, I must try and explain what Old Style and New Style–in reckoning the days of the year–mean.

First let me ask you how you can count the days. Supposing you wish to remain just one day and night in a certain place, how will you know when you have stayed the proper time? In one of two ways. Either you will count twenty-four hours on the clock, or you will stay through all the light of one day, and all the darkness of one night. That is, you will count time either by the Clock or by the Sun.

Now we say that there are 365 days in the year. But there are really a few odd hours and minutes and seconds into the bargain. The reason of this is that the Sun does not go by the Clock in making the days and nights. Sometimes he spends rather more than twenty-four hours by the Clock over a day and night; sometimes he takes less. On the whole, during the year, he uses up more time than the Clock does.

The Clock makes exactly 365 days of 24 hours each. The Sun makes 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 49 seconds, and a tiny bit besides.