Happy May Day - by John Copeland

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Happy May Day – by John Copeland

Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbalow
We were up long before the day-O
To welcome in the summer,
To welcome in the May-O
The summer is a-coming in
And winter’s gone away-O
Hal-an-Tow – traditional ballad ca. 1520
Holy cow!  Do you realize we’re nearly one-third of the way through 2013?  Today, Wednesday, May 1st, was once known as Beltane, but today is most often simply called May Day.  It has been celebrated for thousands of years throughout diverse cultures around the world. 
For most of us in America, May Day has become an obscure holiday and one that many associate either a distress call or with communism.  Yet, it does have a long history as one of the world’s principal festivals and it’s a great example of the collision of paradoxical elements that occur on many of our holidays.  
May 1st, is one of the Cross-Quarter Days of the year and marks the half way point between the Spring Equinox and the Midsummer Solstice.  It’s a celebration of the start of summer, a day of political protests, a neopagan festival day, a saint’s feast day and a day for organized labor.  
The origins of May Day festivities, like many notable days of the year, has ancient connections.  It’s been celebrated for thousands of years by many diverse cultures around the world. Mayday could be the most ancient religious festival, next to New Years, in the Northern Hemisphere.  If Candlemas/Imbolc, on Feb 2nd, is filled with the anticipation for the renewal of life, the true essence of May Day celebrates the explosion of life that unfolds when the forces of summer arrive. 
Called Beltane by the Celts, Walpurgis by the Teutons, and Floralia by the Romans, May Day festivals were once a time of “wearing of the green.”  In the distant past, it was customary for bonfires to be lit at sunset on hilltops.  Cattle were driven between bonfires to both purify them and insure their fertility.  Men and women ran through as well, both for fertility and good luck.  On the following morning, folks would take a burning brand from the bonfire and use it in the setting of new fire in the hearth in their homes. This new fire was thought to lend life to the burgeoning springtime sun.  
The Romans’ Floralia was a very popular festival.  I think most Roman festivals were probably pretty popular to them.  It was devoted to Flora, the goddess of flowers.  A five-day festival, in her honor, 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 merged with those of the Celtic Beltane.  
May has always been regarded as a dangerous month.  It is the time when the seasonal doors of change swing wide open, when evil forces are active and fire was all that could combat them.  It can be a time when even good people have the power to do mischief.  Isn’t it paradoxical that a month traditionally associated with the optimistic burst of spring foliage would come fraught with peril?  But all change – even the wisp of a breeze that breaks the silence can bring with it an air of concern: is this the calm before the storm.
Like an uplifting morning wind after a still night, May signifies movement.  The word mean “the first motion” – of summer – and it has all the properties of a verb.  Maying meant taking action to bringing on summer.
In medieval England, people would celebrate by going out to the country or woods—”going a-maying”—and gathering greenery and flowers, or “bringing in the may.”  Mayday was a raucous and fun time, electing a Queen of the May from the eligible young women of the village, to rule the crops until harvest. Some folklorists see a parallel between the Queen of the May and Maia, the Roman Goddess of Springtime and whose very name may be the root of “May”.
The May Queen is a symbol of nature around which everything revolves.  She embodies purity, strength and the potential for growth, as the plants grow in May.  She is one of many personifications of the energy of the earth, fertility and femininity.  Our tradition of beauty pageants may have evolved, albeit in a very bastardized form, from the old selecting of the May Queen.
Besides picking the May Queen, a Maypole was often raised in villages.  Some towns had permanent maypoles that would stay up all year; others put up a new one each May.  In any event, the pole would be hung with greenery and ribbons and brightly painted.  The young single men and women of the village would dance holding on to the ribbons until they became entwined, with their hoped for new love.
Exhaulting trees is still a common practice.  When was the last time you witnessed someone “knock on wood”?  People knock on wood to avoid bad luck.  The custom derives from a form of primitive tree worship that still lives on in the old wooden maypole.  Although, those of us who live in cities probably don’t get the connection, but those who still live in a farm-type setting are likely aware that trees protect the farmer from rain and sun, nurture him with their fruit and drop their leaves for a resting place.  By living generations, the tree becomes nature’s role model for the immortality we all desire.  A tree’s branches were once thought to connect all earthly creatures with the heavenly abode of the gods.
May Day was also a time for Morris Dancing.  The origins of Morris dancing are lost in the mists of time.  Morris dancing has been claimed to be a remnant of a pre-Christian fertility dance.  Among the earliest references to Morris dancing is in Shakespeare’s, “All’s Well that Ends Well” and the bard makes it clear that the Morris dance was commonly performed on May Day.  
There is a more ancient spelling of Morris that indicates they may have been called Mari’s men.  Mari, was the Mother Goddess, fruitful, and compassionate, and usually portrayed holding an apple from the Tree of Life.  She turns the Wheel of Heaven and is also the mother of the Archer of Love, Cupid.
And of course there is Robin Goodfellow, Puck, or the Green Man who was the Lord of Misrule for this day.  Mayday was a celebration of the common people, and Robin would be the King/Priest/Fool for a day.  Priests and Lords were the butt of many jokes, and the Green Man and his supporters; mummers would make jokes and poke fun of the local authorities.
In colonial America, Puritans frowned on May Day, so the day has never been celebrated with as much enthusiasm in the United States as in Great Britain.  But ,the tradition of celebrating May Day by dancing and singing around a maypole, tied with colorful streamers or ribbons, still survives as an English tradition.  
Here in America, children used to hang May baskets, small baskets of sweets and/or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbors’ doorsteps — a leftover of the old European traditions brought by European immigrants.  I still remember, in my first couple of years of elementary school, on May Day going around to neighbor’s doors and placing a small basket of flowers on their front door, ringing the doorbell and running off, proclaiming Happy May Day.  I guess that kind of dates me, as the custom stopped pretty much about the time I got into 3rd grade.  
May 1st is also the feast day of St. Walburga (or Walpurgis), the abbess of the monastery of Heidenheim, helped St. Boniface bring Christianity to 8th Century Germany.  In Germany, pre-Christian May Day rites also protected one against witchcraft.  This led to a blending of St. Walburga and the earlier observances into a legend in which witches were said to meet with the Devil on the eve of May 1st.The night of April 30th became known as “Walpurgisnacht,” and Goethe dramatized that annual meeting between the witches and the devil in his play “Faust.”
But like putting new wine in old bottles, we are forever changing the meaning of our seasonal holidays.  If an event coincides with a date already symbolically charged with meaning, it can often give a new twist to an old set of customs – the invention of tradition.  
By the end of the 1800s, May Day began to shift away from the merry making and fertility associations.  In many countries, May Day is also Labor Day.  This originated with the United States labor movement in the late 19th Century.  On May 1, 1886, unions across the country went on strike, demanding that the standard workday be shortened to eight hours.  The organizers of these strikes included socialists, anarchists, and others in organized labor movements. 
The protests were not immediately successful, but they proved effective down the line, as eight-hour workdays eventually did become the norm.  Labor leaders, socialists, and anarchists around the world took the American strikes and their fallout as a rallying point, choosing May Day as a day for demonstrations, parades, and speeches.  It was a major state holiday in the Soviet Union and other communist countries.
What once signaled the war between the seasons now focuses on a battle between social ideologies.  If there is any connection between the May Day of old – a day on which people participated in ceremonies dedicated to stimulating the regeneration of life’s processes – and modern May Day as a holiday that anticipates the rebirth of a better world community, maybe it has something to do with the idea that human action is a necessary in the reinvigoration of life’s processes.
Speaking of life’s processes, May 1st, back in the past, was the day for young couples’ pairing, though not yet their wedding, which would not come until the next Cross-Quarter Day, August 2nd, after three months of seeing how they suited each other.
Today’s June weddings came from this tradition; given the impatience of many young women and men, the waiting period came to be shortened to a six-week span.
I’ve always loved May Day.  Thirty some odd years ago, jeesh – there I go dating myself again…. – when I was part of an acting troupe performing one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at the Southern Renaissance Pleasure Faire – May Day and Maying, and of course, a dance around the Maypole, was the spirit of spring for us, the renewal of life and the anticipation of summer.  
I don’t know what you have planned today, but take a few minutes and get out there and enjoy the Spring.  Happy May Day!
John Copeland
Dr. Eric P. Dahlstrom, D.C., L.Ac.
Santa Monica Healing Arts
Providing Chiropractic Care and Acupuncture in Santa Monica since 1999 (http://santamonicahealingarts.com). Check out our 5-star Review on Yelp (http://www.yelp.com/biz/santa-monica-healing-arts-santa-monica) or find us on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Santa-Monica-Healing-Arts)
California winds the ribbons with the Faire Folk in a dress made by Grandma Lynne just for that purpose.

California winds the ribbons with the Faire Folk in a dress made by Grandma Lynne just for that purpose.

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