May 01, 2008

May Day!


Have you ever wondered about the origins of May Day?

In Port Coquitlam where I grew up, grade two youngsters put on the annual "May Pole" dance for our community. Every day for two weeks in 1960, at James Park Elementary, my classmates and I practiced dancing around our May Pole, boys and girls arbitrarily paired off and put through the confusion of complicated and intricate steps around our pole, all the while holding one end of twenty-four ribbons attached to its crown. What I remember most is having to hold hands with Barry Litzenburger--and hating it to the point of nausea--and Mrs. Dandrea's unrelenting patience as she untangled us over and over again from our ribbons.

She had a little record player set up on the girls' lawn and it seemed she was always lifting and resetting the needle so she could physically move into our web and extricate us from ourselves. Once we got it, though? Euphoria. I didn't even mind Barry anymore--I was so happy skipping and high-stepping my way around and around and in and out and sometimes swirling around the other way altogether--opposite the boys.

On May Day itself school was let out and everyone gathered at the civic field where numerous beribboned poles had been strategically scattered. I was taken by surprise by the sheer festivity of the transformed green. The energy was high. Music skirled over the PA system. I suspect my grandparents came out from Delta. I was all dolled up in my hand-me-down dress from Jean Dickson--a lovely dress with lace on the Peter Pan collar and black velvet ribbons; and I thought myself quite a doll (if you didn't count the boys' haircut!), about as close to a princess as I knew I would ever get.

If you look at the picture? You can see by Barry's body language that he was about as enamored with me as I with him.

But never once, at least so far as I can recall, do I ever remember being taught what the holiday meant.

Have you ever wondered?

Mayday and May Day are two different terms. One originates in France from the idiom venez m'aide--come to help me. The other is a holiday.

Mayday we all know. May Day is less familiar. Nonetheless, May Day on May 1st is a well-known holiday throughout the world--celebrated for a variety of, but related, reasons. it began as a pagan festivity throughout Europe, is a celebration of spring's arrival, and marks international victory for organized labor. In many countries, May Day is a national holiday.

May Day is rooted in prehistory and appears to have flourished with startling similarities everywhere. Written records show that in India and Egypt the first of May was always a festival celebrating spring. In Italy, the Romans celebrated Flora, goddess of spring flowers and fertility. One of our earliest origins was the Celtic and Saxon holiday celebrating spring's first planting. This spring festivity was dedicated to the blazing fire god Bel, whose nurturing heat and light brings into fruition the planted seed.

Beltane festivities began the eve before with games and feasting to officially mark the end of winter, the return of the sun, and fertility of the soil; and it culminated with torch-bearing peasants winding their way up the hills. Sun going down, they ignited huge wooden wheels, turned them loose and sent them rolling--ablaze--down into the fields below.

When the Romans conquered Great Britain during the first century they brought their six-day Floralia Festival--celebrated from April 28 to May 3. Their rituals were added to the old, and in time revelers across Europe began donning animal masks and costumes similar to our modern-day Halloween. By the Middle Ages, English couples decorated their bodies and braided their hair with flowers and went out to the countryside on the eve of May Day to go "a-maying"--a night of unbridled love making. Older married couples were even allowed to remove their wedding rings (and the restrictions they imply) for this one night. In the morning all returned home, gathering greenery and flowers and stopping off along the way to leave bouquets at neighbors' homes. Remnants of this tradition can be seen in the dwindling few who still collect flowers and leave anonymous may baskets on neighbors' doorsteps.

Every English village also had its Maypole, a phallic symbol of fertility decorated with greenery and flowers--fertility in fruition. Bringing in the May Pole was a collective, happy venture. On April 30th the young men chopped down the tree, lopped off its branches, leaving a few at the top. Neighboring villages vied for the stoutest, the tallest, and these were carried into towns amidst blowing horns and flutes and then "planted." Villagers wrapped their trees in violets, very much like the figure of Rome's ancient god Attis who, during Floralia Festivities, was carried in procession to Cybele's temple on Rome's Palatine Hill. In England, after the night of "merrymaking" in the greenwood, villagers kicked up their heels around their poles. Ribbons were added. Single men and women took up the loose ends to weave in and out in complicated steps, around and around the pole, sometimes in opposite direction, until the couples became short-leashed and entwined with (hoped for) new love. The May Pole? Encased in an elaborated braided sheath.

The goddess Flora, however, eventually became passe, and it was Diana, goddess of the hunt and Herne, horned god of the hunt, who sent the revelers shouting and singing up into the hills. The traditional wheels, set ablaze and rolled afire downhill, eventually developed into central village bonfires. Related rituals included driving cattle between the fires in order to purify them; sweethearts dancing through the smoke in order to see good luck; and burning witches in effigy. In Germany, at least, witches were believed to meet with the devil on the eve of May 1st--on the Brocken peak. The night became known as Night of the Witches and was dramatized by Goethe in Faust.

A tradition that emerged from this dark side of the holiday was the Beltane cake, cooked on the hot stones surrounding the bonfires. Whoever drew a sooty piece3e became the "carline" and was subject to a mock execution. When ovens came along, the unlucky person to drawn a blackened piece had only to jump over a fire three times.

But just as Flora was supplanted by Herne and Diana, Herne and Diana were in time overshadowed by England's Robin Goodfellow, predecessor of Robin Hood/the Green Man. The morphing of this tradition pops up in DC Comics and TV's Smallville. The goddess was eclipsed when villagers and guildsmen started electing eligible maidens from their communities to take over the guardianship of the crops until harvest--and it's not difficult to draw the correlation between "Queen of the may" and our beauty pageants.

The popularity and pagan pull of the holiday everywhere prompted the Medieval Catholic Church to outlaw Beltane--to no avail. The pope resorted to turning this pagan holiday into one that instead commemorated St. Walpurgis--a female saint who helped St. Boniface Christianize 8th-century Germany. Alas. Europe's Night of the Witches simply became known as "Walpurgisnacht."

The church's influence was not completely cast aside, however. Various trade guilds in Medieval England and across Europe began incorporating the patron saints of their craft into their pagan celebrations. Cobblers honored St. Crispin; tailors, Adam and Eve. Well into the late 18th century these trade societies and early craft unions were still entering floats in local parades--St. Crispin blessing the shoemakers, tailors fitting fig-clad Adam and Eve stand-ins. In 1644, the Puritan Parliament out-and-out outlawed May Day, but the May Pole simply became the Liberty Tree. In France, it actually became a symbol for the French Revolution.

Medieval trade societies evolved into guilds, guilds into unions. And on May 1st, 1866, the US Labor Movement began. From the Atlantic to Pacific, unions went on solidarity strikes, demanding that the standard twelve-hour-plus workday be shortened to eight.

The fight was long and violent, but eventually--at terrible cost--the eight-hour day was won. Labor leaders all over the world took this as a rallying point, and in 1889, in Paris, the International Working Men's Association declared May 1st an international working class holiday in commemoration of the martyrs to the cause, and as a solidarity date for demonstrations, parades, and speeches. It is now a major state holiday in several counties, with its own red flag to symbolize the blood of the working class in their historical and worldwide battle for rights.

Numerous attempts by the church and state have been made to uproot all aspects of May Day--redefining it as a religious holiday to executing political martyrs. During the cold war, Russia took a dim view of labor rights but made a big to-doo over the working class "happily" striving for the better good of all. Pope Pius XII in 1955 redefined the day as St. Joseph the Worker. Eisenhower, in 1958, designated May Day as Law and Loyalty Day. Such on-going attempts to recreate the old pagan holidays as a religious and patriotic one has, it seems, finally succeeded in undermining the old glory of May Day. Most of us have never really fully understood it raucous roots or historic value--or its symbol of hope.

Perhaps May Day, 2008, is as good a day as any to return to our collective roots and celebrate Spring's arrival. Why not? It's been a long winter--at least in the Pacific Northwest. And perhaps it's as good a day as any to be thankful for our eight-hour workday--and to think of those who do not yet experience human rights in the workplace. From the sex trade to free trade--universal battle is not yet won. In American and around the world many still (or once again) futilely whisper "mayday"--venez m'aide, come to my aid. Truly May Day is a holiday to reclaim, to celebrate...and to use as common ground for the common good of all.

As for me, right now, I have to put the finishing touches on my youngest son's birthday cake. He was born on May Day twenty-eight years ago and I made him a Beltane cake this afternoon. Oatmeal, ginger, cloves, cinnamon. How many great grandfathers ago did his ancestors celebrate this day with Beltane cakes around a roaring fire in the villages of Scotland?

Happy Birthday, Blake. And for everyone else, Happy May Day!

PS. If you want the recipe for this delicious May Day/Beltane cake, let me know. It's easy to make and deeeelicious. And don't forget to tell your May Day heritage stories. I'd love to hear from you. bw


  1. I'd love to have the recipe... Thanks for the history lesson! :)

  2. Hi Brenda:

    Thanks for the May Day info. Interesting stuff, and I really enjoyed your picture with Barry. You were already cute at that tender age!

    Hope you had a great May Day!

    Cheers, Jim

  3. Linda5:54 PM

    Hi, Brenda,

    I just wanted to let you know that all the May Poles set up at the Agricultural Grounds in Port Coquitlam were for the different school groups of Grade 2 students.

    The year my class did it, I got sick, I believe, but you would have to check that out with Mum. I remember practicing, but not attending.

    The steps were weaving back and forth between the boys, who were coming around the pole in the opposite direction from the girls. The ribbons made a pretty woven pattern coming down the pole and we got closer and closer to the pole as the ribbons shortened up. At a certain point in the music, we stopped, turned and wove back between the boys in the other direction until the ribbons were completely unwoven and the pole was bare again, the ribbons back to their full length.

    Ah, yes. Those were the days! Did Tresa ever have the honour?

    Up here in the good ol' Northwest Territories spring is in the air and all sorts of interesting things are growing out of the melting snow . . . old boots, bones the ravens have carried off, candy wrappers, even a jacket or scarf! Our yard, though almost bare, is still very soggy. But the weather is warming up and we already have 16 hours of daylight!

    Love, Linda

  4. Kay Dee4:18 PM

    Hey Girl,

    We never had May Day celebrations in south Texas--probably cause it was too damn hot even for flowers, but I enjoyed your piece and how cute you looked w/ Barry. Wonder what ever happened to that young chap?

  5. Hi Brenda: I know you through guideposts:) Is you website shut down:( I wanted to see your art work. Mary

  6. Hi, Mary:
    The only way I can reply to you is via the blog, unless you email me directly. No, my web site is not shut down. You have to "plug" it in.

    1) Go to my website. The link is here on my blog.
    2) Put your cursor on the plug and it'll plug in.
    3) In the surreal world where words disappear like dandelion seeds, click on DESIGNER.
    4) DESIGNER has four sidebar options and you can choose any one of those to see my art work: web design, illustration, book covers, and layout.
    Thanks for getting in touch; hope to hear you were successfully logging on.
    5) You can also email me via my web site!

    Take care, brenda

  7. Anonymous7:45 AM

    I left a (very) belated comment yesterday on your August 14th post...then wondered if you would ever get it! (I don't know if you get a notification or not). In any case, I thought I would just drop you a quick line here to let you know :)

  8. Hi, "A"

    I did get it--and appreciated the point that we can be wounded by perception and lies as much as truth. I can't respond personally--unless given an email, so am stuck responding via the blog itself. Hope you get this!

    It was good to realize my great grandfather not only didn't call my mother a brat and back his daughter into a corner over the whole thing but that he'd actually fought to get Mum back.

    I do have a bee in my bonnet though. I want to go to Jamaica and see the old "family" plantation--if it's still around.

    Thanks again! brenda


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