May Day is the halfway point, or cross-quarter Day, of spring. By mid-spring, Nature has dug in Her roots and taken hold. Once-tentative buds have unfolded and flourished, spread green with the surging effervescent, aphrodisiac substance of life. The sap, the shoot, the root, the bud, the bark, the branch, the trunk, the tree of life.
The merry month of May marks the high-spirited puberty rite of passage into adolescence for the flora and fauna offspring of Mother Earth. All the vernal newborns, having outgrown generations of teeth, baby down, feathers, pelts, and ridiculously expensive sneakers, are now frenetic with raging hormones.
It is no wonder that May Day is an old European spring fertility and copulation festival held in honor of the trees and their mistresses, the virgin vegetation goddesses. Celebrated as Floralia by the Romans, Walpurgisnacht by the Teutons, Whitsuntide by the Dutch, and Beltane by the Celts, it centered on romantic devotions to the nubile goddesses of spring, Flora, Walpurga, and Maia, for whom this month is named.
The festivities began on May Day morning when the young girls would go out in the pre-dawn hours to wash their faces in May dew, which was held to be fortifying as well as beautifying. In 1515, Catherine of Aragon was reported to have traveled into the forest with 25 ladies in waiting to bathe in the May dew.
Samuel Pepys notes in his diary that his wife gathered May dew in 1667, "which Mrs. Turner hath taught her is the only thing in the world to wash her face with: and I am contented with it." Oliver Cromwell, who died in 1658, is said to have partaken of May dew on medical advice. This custom survived until relatively recently in the Ozark Mountains where girls washed their face in May dew at sunrise so that they might marry the man of their desire.
At first light, the boys joined them in the forest and together they brought in the May -- small trees, branches, and flowers with which to decorate the village green, streets, and houses. In England, they sang in the May, adding music to their forest procession. This custom continued well into the 20th century in the practice of leaving May baskets filled with flowers and sweets and rhyming love verses at the door of one's beloved at dusk on May 1.
The young folks then stripped a tall tree of its branches and set it up in the village square. The top was crowned with a wreath of flowers and sometimes a female figurine as well. The garland-wrapped pole is a clear and graphic representation of a phallus encircled by a yoni. This Maypole was then hung with ribbons which were woven around the pole in the course of a grand-right-and-left spiral dance, intertwining the young men and women in the process; bringing them, binding them, ever closer together sizzling with sexual abandonment.
May Day festivals, which began with great public gaiety, usually ended in orgiastic displays of sexual licentiousness. Marriage vows were temporarily forgotten during this honey month. People coupled freely in the woods and fields, fertilizing the soil and each other, sharing a fervent participation in the regenerative magic of the earth.
Of course, the puritan Anglo-Saxon Protestant fathers were deeply offended by the Maypole ceremony, with its not-so-subtle sexual connotations and pagan sensibilities. Maypoles, "a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness," were forbidden by an act of parliament in 1644.
Maypoles later regained favor during the Restoration. The last permanent public Maypole was erected in the London Strand in 1661. It took 12 British soldiers under the personal supervision of James II to plant the 134-foot cedar pole in the ground. In 1717 it was removed to Wanstead Park in Essex, where it was adapted by Sir Isaac Newton for use as part of the support of the largest telescope in the world.
Like all of the devotional rites dedicated to the popular earth goddesses that they could not repress, May Day was ultimately claimed by the Church as its own. In doing so, the veneration of the Maypole was left completely intact. The tree simply became the cross, which is venerated on May 3 as Holy Cross Day.
This May Day, let us pay tribute to the Earth Mother and Her daughter goddesses of green growth by planting May trees and flowers and then dancing around them to celebrate the lovely, lusty miracle of life.
Some rituals deserve to be repeated.
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