Wednesday, May 2, 2007

May Day and Beltane

(Traditional cone May Basket)

The month of May is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful months of the year. Traditionally, in Western Europe, it was the Month of the Lady or Goddess, and 1 May was celebrated as one of the eight key festivals in the Wheel of the Year. The festival was known as Beltane, and was celebrated as the first day of Summer. (It is thus that Midsummer came to be celebrated on 24 June.)

The Festival of Beltane fundamentally is an ancient fire festival. The 'need fire' was kindled using two sticks and great bonfires were created and fed at the tops of hills and mountains throughout the land. The magical power of fire is accepted universally. In some traditions, cattle were driven between two fires to protect them from disease. Young people would leap over the fire. An old Mother Goose rhyme speaks of this tradition:
'Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Jack jump over the candlestick!'

Fire is a purifying force in all cultures.

Another tradition involves the baking of a Beltane cake. The cake would be round like the moon, then cut into pieces of equal size. The side of one piece would be blackened by the fire or soot. The person who received that piece was obliged to assume the role of Sacrifice and would be 'executed' in a mock drama.

One of the most beautiful customs is the 'bringing in of the May', wherein the young people of the village or area would go into the forest and bring back green boughs. In some cases, the young men would find a perfect, straight tree, cut it down and drag it back to the village square, to be erected as the Maypole. The tree, having been stripped of its branches and leaves, would be decorated with ribbons, ornaments and flowers. Intricate 'weaving' dances were performed to weave the ribbons in a pattern as dancers held the ends and made their way back and forth in a circle round the Maypole. In some places, May Day celebrations of this sort still are held.

The festival of May Day was a fertility rite and it traditionally was the one occasion on which couples could meet freely and be intimate without being censured. Children born as a result of May Day 'dalliances' were considered to be children of the gods. In fact, the English surname of Robinson originally was 'Robin's son', and was given to children born out of wedlock as a result of May Day encounters. Robin Hood or Robin o' the Hood is believed by some to have been the representative of the old god of the woodland. A very interesting British television series from the 1980s entitled 'Robin of Sherwood' explored the pagan nature of Robin Hood as 'son of Herne' the Hunter.

As children, we always made May Baskets on May Day. These were 'baskets' or cones made of paper, filled with flowers, that we would hang on the doorknobs of neighbours' houses. The custom was to ring the doorbell, then run away. The tradition probably had its roots in the old custom of 'bringing in the May'. It is a pity that the May Day basket has fallen into disuse.

Any one who believes Christianity to be a 'patriarchal' religion probably has been exposed more to strict Protestant sects than to Roman Catholicism, as Catholics hold the Blessed Virgin in great esteem. In fact, Mary is crowned 'Queen of the May' even now by Catholics throughout the world. In Catholic schools, the schoolchildren will participate in a May procession to bring a statue of Mary a crown woven of flowers, crowning her as Queen of Heaven. This charming ritual usually is held on 8 May or during the first week of May.

May Day has become a political festival in modern times among socialists. It is interesting to note that red, the colour of fire and of fertility, is the colour employed by socialists most often in May Day posters.

1 comment:

Fleming said...

Fascinating. At my elementary school we had a May Pole celetration in which the pole was erected outdoors and each child would take a ribbon which was attached to the top of the pole, and we would circle the pole in various ways (to the music of a piano dragged out of the building) until the pole was wrapped in colourful ribbons.