What is the history of the May Altar?
Many traditions associate the month of May to Mary. In the 13th century, Alfonso X of Castile wrote about the special honoring of Mary during specific dates in May in his Cantigas de Santa Maria. The custom of consecrating the entire month of May to the Blessed Virgin Mary was adopted by the 17th century, and was celebrated with special observances in both churches and in the home.
The tradition of a month-long May devotion to honoring Mary spread throughout Europe in the 19th century, with specific prayers for the devotions promulgated by Rome in 1838. This form of devotion was influence and furthered with the Treatise on True Devotion to Mary by St. Louis de Montfort, who, among other things, taught that the decoration of Marian altars as a chief exercise of Marian devotion.
The following descriptions of May altars in St. Thérèse’s family in late 19th century France gives us a glimpse into a devout families devotion to Our Lady in their home life.
“Since I was too little to attend May devotions, I remained at home with Victoire (a servant of the Martin family), carrying out my devotions with her before my little May altar. This I had arranged according to my taste; everything was so small, the candlestick, the flower pots, etc. Two tapers lit it up perfectly.”
(St. Thérèse, Story of a Soul, Page 38-39)
Creating a Home Altar to honor Mary
The month of May is a time to look forward to better weather and enjoy the flowers and plants which are starting to bloom. This is a good time to create a small altar at home, to pay tribute to Mary.
- Choose a room in the home where you can set up your altar, such as a corner of the hallway or an area in a bedroom.
- Find a flat surface that will act as your altar; a small table or chest of drawers is ideal. You could cover the altar with a cloth, but this isn’t essential.
- An image of Mary will be your centerpiece. Use a small statue if you have one, or a picture of Mary from a prayer card or prayer book if not. A set of rosary beads or a small crucifix placed on the altar can also help with devotions.
- Have a chair or stool nearby to encourage family members to stop by and perhaps offer prayers to Mary during the day. If you have any prayer or Mass cards with images of Mary, these could also be placed on the altar.
Decorating a Home Altar
Any flowers can be used for a home altar, the main point being to reflect on the joy of the coming summer season. However, there are many plants, which throughout history, have been associated with the Virgin Mary.
The rose and lily are two of the best known flowers with Marian associations. Lily of the Valley, which flowers in May, is known as ‘Our Lady’s tears’ and May hawthorn, sometimes known as ‘Mary’s flower of May’ is a seasonal plant, which was often used for church celebrations in times past. Sweet pea is another flower associated with the Virgin Mary, which will add a beautiful scent to the altar.
Candles can be another addition to your special area, and could be lit during prayer times. Do remove these when not in use if you have children in the house.
Portions of this article were excerpted from a pamphlet entitled “Our Lady’s May Altar”, from the Archdiocese of Dublin