“Ne’er cast a clout till May be out“

me-hawthorn-7We’ve been teased with glimpses of Summer and the suncream has been out for the first time. But then last week saw a return of the cold weather and bucket-loads of rain. It was wet pretty much every day here in the Midlands and coats went back on, reminding me of the proverb:

“Ne’er cast a clout till May be out“

Simply put it means don’t cast off your winter clothes until May is out.

What’s not clear is whether this means until the month of May is over, or until the Maytree is in bloom, it’s tricky to know because it’s a saying that can be traced back to the fifteenth century. The Maytree or Hawthorn blossoms were given the common name ‘May’ due to them opening in late April and early in the month of May, making them a central to many MayDay celebrations in the past. The time the Hawthorn comes into leaf and flower has been used to track the seasons for decades and the blossom would’ve been an important sign to farm workers that the growing season was starting in times when few people had clocks or calendars. It’s out in full now, so hopefully it’s a sign things are warming up.

A longer version of the saying appeared as a poem in an 1855 Whitby Gazette:

The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast.
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May be out.

I think the original proverb probably meant the month of May rather than the plant, as it’s not uncommon to get a spell of cold weather now. I got thoroughly soaked in the Peak District at the weekend, so I’m hanging onto my coat for a bit.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18