May 1, 2010
I am 52 years old, and have spent
truly the better part
of my life out-of-doors
but yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air
and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn't know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings
just feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.
How do they do that?
Oh if we lived only in human society
with its cruelty and fear
its apathy and exhaustion
what a puny existence that would be
but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
so that when, every now and then, mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we manage to unite and move together
toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it's meant to be.
Today is May Day. Even though spring officially begins in March, today is the day that celebrates the height of spring, a day of spring festivities and celebrations.
Like many of our modern holidays, May Day has its roots in ancient, pagan celebrations.
Beginning in the third century B.C. in Rome, the festival Floralia, for the goddess Flora, was held in the days around May Day, April 28th to May 3rd. Flora was a goddess of flowers and fertility, and the festival was held to please her so that she protected flowers and other blossoming plants. There was a circus and theater performances, there were prostitutes and naked dancers, and a sacrifice to the goddess. Deer and goats were let loose to symbolize fertility, and beans and lupines were scattered for the same reason. Romans usually wore white tunics, but during Floralia, they got to wear bright colors. Although Floralia wasn't instituted until the third century B.C., it evolved from an ancient celebration of spring and fertility traditionally held at that time. Ovid wrote: "Mother of flowers, Flora, present be, / We raise the chant midst jocund games to thee. / Begun in April, unto May deferred, / For both are thine, the jocund song is heard. / Upon the confines of both months we stand / Embellished with the bounties of thy hand."
In the Celtic British Isles, May Day was celebrated as the festival of Beltane, or Bealtaine or Bealtuinn — Bel was the Celtic god of light, and taine or tuinne meant fire. It was the summer half of the year — a time when the sun set later, when the earth and animals were fertile. Beltane lasted from sundown the night before to sundown on the first of May. On the eve of Beltane, people lit bonfires to Bel to call back the sun. People jumped over the fires to purify themselves, and they blessed their animals by taking them between bonfires before leading them to their summer pastures the next day. It was a day to walk around the property lines and assess your land for the summer season, to mend fences. Women washed their faces with the spring dew so that they would stay beautiful, and there was dancing, tournaments, parades, feasting, and general revelry. There were lots of flowers — men walked around the fires with rowan branches to keep evil spirits at bay, and May trees, or Maypoles, were set up covered in rowan or hawthorn flowers as a blessing. People danced around the Maypole, seen to be a phallic symbol to promote fertility, and villages would compete with each other to see who could produce the tallest maypole. Young couples went off into the forest to spend the night together and came back the next day with flowers to spread through the village. A young woman was crowned May Queen, and she would ride naked on horseback through the village.
Many of these celebrations continued as late as the 17th century — the Puritans were not too pleased, especially since so many young women went off into the woods and came back pregnant. Maypoles were made illegal in 1644.
Since the Puritans discouraged May Day, it was never a major holiday in America. Eventually it was reinvented as a holiday for children, with flowers and candy. And elements of it — rabbits for fertility, colored eggs (also for fertility), which had been scattered around the Maypole — were incorporated into Easter traditions. But May Day has its followers in America. The largest May Day celebration is in Minneapolis, where up to 50,000 people turn out for puppets, dancing, and music in a joyful community parade and a ceremony calling back the sun, put on by In The Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater with the help of about 2,000 volunteers.
May Day has also taken on another meaning in much of the world as International Workers' Day, or Labor Day. It actually began in the United States, where anarchists were hanged without a fair trial for their involvement in the Haymarket Square riots in Chicago in early May of 1886.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®