The first of day of May, has meant a variety of things over the years in the western world, and is commonly thought of these days as worker rights day, although it gained some infamy in 2003, when on May 1, Bush announced that "major combat operations in Iraq had ended."
I prefer to think of May 1 in terms of the old pagan celebration of new life and the fertility of the earth. ("At this time of the year, the Earth softens under the caress of the sun and all the world is new.") Such celebrations include vestiges of a Druidic worldview, as well as Celtic customs, with perhaps some cross-fertilization from the ancient Roman Floralia, which was three days of licentiousness beginning April 28th and cresting on May 1st.
The old Celtic name for May Day is Beltane derived from the fire of the Celtic god of light, Bel. Beltane is one of the most important days on the pagan "Wheel of the Year". It’s a cross-quarter day, that is, it falls halfway between an equinox and a solstice. Cross-quarter days, are also called fire-festival days, and the best known one is Samhain or "All Hallow’s Eve" --Halloween.
Beltane started at sundown on April 30, since they counted their days from sundown to sundown. Thus, the great Bel-fires were lit at sundown on the brow of the closest beacon hill, amidst much revelry. Some participants jumped through the fire to seek health and protection. In preparation for turning the cattle out to the summer pastures, the cows were often driven between two bon-fires, also to confer protection.
The Saxons also celebrated May Day starting on the eve, with much feasting to honor the end of winter. They played certain sporting games and lit torches which were used to light wheels they rolled down from hilltops. Crowning a May Queen, and dancing around the Maypole may have originated with them.
In some parts of Europe, May Day revelries took the form of masking. Costumed characters took part in mummery that came to be called Walpurgisnacht (night of the witches) by those of Teutonic descent.
During the English Renaissance, musicians sang of Maypole dances, and the coupling of young lovers. Elizabethan poets wrote of the charm of the customs of Mayday, including "bringing in the May," a reference to gathering the white-flowering hawthorn branches (once a symbol of purity) to decorate doors and homes. Maypoles, May queens, and round dances were a part of these times.
The Maypole has often been interpreted as a phallic symbol, but that is not its only symbolism. Some have seen its origins as a representation of the pagan Wheel of Heaven. The weaving of the ribbons was meant to show man's imposition of a formal order on unruly nature. In Germanic traditions, the Maypole was a representation of the Tree of Life.
Sixteenth century France also celebrated with la reine de mai. Nostradamus wrote,
The custom is very old of choosing the most beautiful young girls of the neighborhood to be gorgeously adorned with crowns of flowers, garlands, jewels, and silk accoutrements, and placed on high thrones like young goddesses. All the passersby, at least those of honest condition, are obliged to contribute a bit of money in return for a kiss.
Englishman John Stow, writing in 1598, noted:
In the month of May, the citizens of all estates, generally in every parish . . .had their several mayings, and did fetch their Maypoles with divers warlike shows, with good archers, morrice dancers, and other devices for pastime all day long, and towards evening they had stage plays and bonfires in the streets.
At times the Church outlawed the festival of May Day, because of its pagan associations and the licentious nature of many celebrations. English villagers continued to enjoy Mayday in spite of the frowns of the clergy: drinking May-wine and the bawdier aspects of merrymaking continued.
We owe to one churchman this description of 17th century May Day:
Against Maie-day every parish, towne or village assemble themselves together both men, women and children; and either all together or dividing themselves into companies, they goe some to the woods and groves, some to the hills and mountains, some to one place, some to another, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes, and in the morning they return, bringing with them birche boughes and branches of trees to deck their assemblies withal. But their chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their Maie-poale, which they bring home with great veneration thus: they have twentie or fourtie yoke of oxen, every one having a sweet nosegaie of flowers tied to the tip of his hornes, and these oxen draw home this Maie-poale, . . .which is covered all over with flowers and hearbes, bound round with strings from the top the bottome, and sometimes it was painted with variable colours, having two or three hundred men, women, and children following it with great devotion. And thus equipped it was reared up, with handkerchiefs and flagges streaming on the top, they strawe the ground around about it, they bind green boughes about it, they set up summer halles, bowers and arbours hard by it. and then they fall to banquetting and feasting, to leaping and dauncing about it . . .
In fact, the Puritans of the Commonwealth period outlawed Maypoles in 1644. But right after the restoration of Charles II in 1661, a Maypole was set up in the Strand, in London, 134 feet high, double any previous Maypole's height. It remained in place for 50 years.
One judgmental Puritan wrote that men
doe use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe.
The complaint continued that, of the girls who go into the woods, not the least one of them comes home again a virgin.
The Puritans attempted to suppress the 'greenwood marriages' of young men and women who spent the entire night in the forest, staying out to greet the May sunrise, and bringing back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next morning.
May Day languished into a folk celebration until the Victorians and Edwardians added the idea of May baskets and recreated Maypole dancing as a children's playtime. Thus, May Day lost its luster as a celebration of rebirth and the renewal of life.
During the 19th century, May 1 had began to take on a totally new awareness, due to labor strikes. Thus, in the 20th century, May 1 was often considered a day to uphold worker solidarity. The Soviet Marxists upheld worker solidarity by a rousing display of military might on May Day. Armored tanks in Red Square, of course, are the antithesis of celebrations for the rebirth of earth and Spring.
As the world of nature has changed due to global warming, I think May Day is an excellent time to take stock of our relationship to nature and our awareness of the cycle of renewal that has sustained our agriculture.
Too often these days, modern people are isolated from Nature and regard weather merely as an inconvenience for their preferred activities. Many people live in the artificial climate of heating and air conditioning, which not only requires immense energy resources, but also insolates people from the reality of natural cycles in the earth.
Many children in modern America don’t even know where much of their food comes from. Milk is found at the supermarket, after all, and appears without any consideration of dirty cows and muddy Spring farmyards and fields. In fact, factory farms have isolated even the cows in an artificial environment in many cases, so they always stand on concrete, eating specially blended feeds to increase production.
How far we have come from the pagan earthiness of life and enjoyment of the fecundity of mother Earth. Today, celebrate rebirth, regrowth, and pray (!) for the continued fertility of our world!
Let me end with a verse from Jethro Tulll’s 1977 song, Cup of Wonder
May I make my fond excuses
for the lateness of the hour,
but we accept your invitation, and we bring you Beltane's flower.
For the May Day is the great day, sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did lay
will heed the song that calls them back.
Pass the word and pass the lady, pass the plate to all who hunger.
Pass the wit of ancient wisdom, pass the cup of crimson wonder. . .