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Calendar of the Dead: Spring

Filed under: Ghostly History & theory — loretta @ 01:20:58 pm

Throughout the year certain dates in the calendar have associations, direct and indirect with the dead and the supernatural. I have collected some of them together here, from Europe and further afield. The following are associate with the Spring period from 21st March to 20th June.

24th April, - St Marks Eve was the night when one could stand in the church porch at midnight, and witness a ghostly procession of those who would die that coming year, entering the church. The practice was first recorded early in the 17th century until late in the 19th, but was discouraged by the authorities. A correspondent to Hone’s ‘Every-Day Book’ in 1827 wrote that those who were to die soon entered first, whilst those that would last most of the year would not enter until nearly one o’clock. Those who would be gravely ill but not die would approach the church and peep in, but not enter (Simpson & Roud [2000]). There are many tales of watchers who see themselves in the procession and die not long after. Occasionally this tradition is found associated with Midsummer Night or All Saints’ (Roud [2006]).

30th April - The eve of May Day has magical associations. In the British Isles, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, it was customary to light bonfires, usually to protect cattle from witchcraft (Hutton [1996]). The festival is also known as Walpurgisnacht in Germanic countries, and is named after the English missionary Saint Walpurga who was canonised on the 1st of May (her saints day is February 25th). In Estonia, Germany and Denmark the night is associated with gatherings of witches, and with driving out evil spirits with loud noises. In Lancashire and Yorkshire this was Mischief Night when young people traditionally played tricks on their local community. In other areas Mischief Night is November 4th (Roud [2006]).

Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer’s Nights Dream’ is set on May Eve (; although in Britain there are some associations with fairy folk, this is very rare (Roud [2006]). On the Eve of May the people of Kingstone and Thruxton put trays of moss outside the door at night for the fairies to dance upon (Leather [1912]).

Month of May - May has a tradition of being an ‘unlucky’ month; marriages in May ‘never prosper’ and are supposed to be unhappy. In 19th century Suffolk, Sussex and Wiltshire broom flowers should not be brought into the house, nor its twigs used to sweep the floor as this could mean a death in the household (Simpson & Roud [2000]). The May Tree, Hawthorn, is considered unlucky and its blooms should not be taken indoors although they play a part in external decorations. Bringing the plant inside might bring about illness and death although contradictory traditions also exist (Simpson & Roud [2000]). The Rowan tree was also considered a powerful defence against witchcraft and the Evil Eye and was placed above stable doors on May Day (Leather [1912]).

May 27th (2012), Pentecost/Whitsun - The 7th Sunday after Easter marks Pentecost or Whitsun, when the Holy Ghost descended to the remaining eleven disciples. In the medieval church the winter season had the strongest links with the dead and their manifestations; this time was thought to end around Pentecost. This is perhaps no accident as, according to tradition in the early church, the Sunday after Pentecost (the Octave) was a commemorative day for the ‘faithful dead’. This was before it was moved by Odilo, the Benedictine Abbot of Cluny to the 2nd November c.1030. The earlier association did not disappear; the monks at St Bénigne of Dijon prayed for the dead on the Monday of the Octave. On the Thursday, at the monastic community in Cluny, prayers were offered for those buried in the cemetery (Schmitt [1998]).
Many tales of apparitions focus on Pentecost. The monk Raoul Glaber (c.985-c.1047) reported that in the monastery of Reomagensse, a ‘sweet natured’ brother called Wulferius stayed behind after matins to pray in the church of St Maurice on the Sunday of the Octave of Pentecost. Suddenly the church was filled with figures in white robes and they began to celebrate the mass. Wulferius was told they were the blessed dead and that he too would depart from life soon (Joynes [2001]).

9th, 11th and 13th, Lemuria - In ancient Rome the festival of Lemuria (or Lemuralia) was celebrated in private households. The Roman poet Ovid, writing in the early years of the first century AD, claimed that the tradition was of great antiquity (Fasti, Book V). The Lemuria was an exorcism of troublesome ghosts and evils spirits, such as Larvae, Lemures and Manes (as opposed to the Lares and di Manes which were ‘good’ spirits). Those who had not been afforded a proper burial, such as murder victims or those that died on military campaigns, and the wicked, would return in this form and trouble the living because they had not received the appropriate rites and would not be remembered without a proper grave. They were thought of as ‘hungry’ ghosts and the ritual provided them with food and offerings. The Lemuria spanned 3 alternate nights in May, on the 9th, 11th and 13th, the last being the Ides of May (full moon). There are conflicting accounts around the duration of the festival but there is agreement that it only falls on odd numbered days. (Collison-Morley [1912]; Wikipedia [2012])

At night, the head of the family would walk barefooted, make a special sign with his hand for protection, wash his hands for purification and repeat special incantations nine times. He did this whilst throwing black beans behind him, a food associated with the dead (Paton [1921]). The spirit would follow and collect the beans, but the householder was careful not to look back. Another incantation is repeated nine times and finally a bronze instrument or pans are clashed together, to drive the spirits away. Once the ritual was finished, it was safe to look behind. By offering this food directly (possibly from his own mouth) the ghosts would feel they had received their due and leave the family in peace for another year.

Ovid, Book V: The Lemuria
When Hesperus, the Evening Star, has shown his lovely face
Three times, from that day, and the defeated stars fled Phoebus,
It will be the ancient sacred rites of the Lemuria,
When we make offerings to the voiceless spirits.
The year was once shorter, the pious rites of purification, februa,
Were unknown, nor were you, two-faced Janus, leader of the months:
Yet they still brought gifts owed to the ashes of the dead,
The grandson paid respects to his buried grandfather’s tomb.
It was May month, named for our ancestors (maiores),
And a relic of the old custom still continues.
When midnight comes, lending silence to sleep,
And all the dogs and hedgerow birds are quiet,
He who remembers ancient rites, and fears the gods,
Rises (no fetters binding his two feet)
And makes the sign with thumb and closed fingers,
Lest an insubstantial shade meets him in the silence.
After cleansing his hands in spring water,
He turns and first taking some black beans,
Throws them with averted face: saying, while throwing:
‘With these beans I throw I redeem me and mine.’
He says this nine times without looking back: the shade
Is thought to gather the beans, and follow behind, unseen.
Again he touches water, and sounds the Temesan bronze,
And asks the spirit to leave his house.
When nine times he’s cried: ‘Ancestral spirit, depart,’
He looks back, and believes the sacred rite’s fulfilled.
The Lemuria may well have been an influence on the medieval and later traditions in the rest of Europe, the final part of this book is an uncanny an echo of our own folklore:
And the ancients closed the temples on these days,
As you see them shut still at the season of the dead.
It’s a time when it’s not suitable for widows or virgins
To wed: she who marries then won’t live long.
And if you attend to proverbs, then, for that reason too,
People say unlucky women wed in the month of May.
Though these three festivals fall at the same time,
They are not observed on three consecutive days.

The Lemuria may well have had a lasting effect on our calendar days of the dead – as will be from later festivals in the year.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief ramble through the Spring calendar dates and their ghostly and magical associations. I look forward to bringing you the next 3 months of dates when the dead may return.

Collison-Morley, L., (1912) Greek and Roman Ghost Stories, Oxford, Retrieved from
Hutton, R., (1996)The Stations of the Sun, Oxford, reissued 2001
Joynes, A., (2001) Medieval Ghost Stories, Woodbridge
Leather, E. M., (1912) The Folklore of Herefordshire, Hereford, reprinted 1991 Lapridge Publications
Paton, L. B., (1921) Spiritism and the Cult of the Dead in Antiquity, Toronto, Retrieved from
Schmitt, J.-C., (1998)Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, trans. T. Lavender Fagan, Chicago
Simpson, J. & Roud S., (2000) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford
Roud, S., (2006) The English Year, London
Wikipedia, (2012) Lemuria (festival,) Retrieved from March 2012
Ovid, Fasti, trans. Kline, A. S. (2004), Retrieved from

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