Thursday, May 1, 2008
Happy May Day
Did you make May baskets as a child, filling them with flowers and candy and then leave them on the front doorstep of friends and neighbors? I certainly did. Some years the “basket” was a simple cone of construction paper while other years the teacher had us weave a square one. The tradition was one I never questioned because it was fun, more fun to give even, than to receive. In my mother’s time there still were maypoles at school. In politically and religiously correct twenty-first century America, I imagine that such festivities associated with school are a thing of the past—like the potbellied stove.
The celebration of the first of day is as ancient as Stonehenge. For the Druids of the British Isles, May 1st was the second most important holiday of the year because it was when the festival of Beltane was held. It was thought that the day divides the year into half. The other half was to be ended with the Samhain, which is modern Halloween. In those days the May Day custom was the setting of new fire. It was one of those ancient New Year rites performed throughout the world. And the fire itself was thought to lend life to the burgeoning springtime sun. Cattle were driven through the fire to purify them. Men, with their sweethearts, passed through the smoke for seeing good luck.
Then the Romans came to occupy the British Isles. The beginning of May was a very popular feast time for the Romans. It was devoted primarily to the worship of Flora, the goddess of flowers. It was in her honor a five day celebration, called the Floralia, was held. The five day festival would start from April 28 and end on May 2. The Romans brought in the rituals of the Floralia festival in the British Isles. And gradually the rituals of the Floralia were added to those of the Beltane and many of today's customs on the May Day bear a similarity with those combined traditions.
The Puritans frowned on the celebration of May Day or Beltane and celebrating in general. Because of this May Day never enjoyed as much prominence in America as in England and other European countries and their descendants, the Religious Right, has been successful in quashing remnants of our pagan past regardless of how joyous.
Although our Spring this year seems to be coming with cold feet, there are signs that indeed she is coming. Beautiful pink blooms are dressing apple and cherry trees and the dogwoods are about to burst into bloom. Be your own May Queen or King and do something nice for a friend or neighbor while you meditate on the growing season that’s begun.