A Merry May Day

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 30, 2014 — 1 Comment

This time, right around May 1st, are the traditional dates for many of the major Spring/Summer festivals in modern Paganism (in the northern hemisphere). Beltane, Bealtaine, May DayFloraliaProtomayia, and Walpurgis Night, to name just a sampling. These festivals herald the coming of summer, a time of merriment, celebration, and bounty, a liminal time when the barriers between our world and the otherworld were thin. In many traditions and cultures it is a time of divine union and fertility.

Spring flower. Photo by Jason Thomas Pitzl.

Spring flower. Photo by Jason Thomas Pitzl.

“You start in April and cross to the time of May
One has you as it leaves, one as it comes
Since the edges of these months are yours and defer
To you, either of them suits your praises.
The Circus continues and the theatre’s lauded palm,
Let this song, too, join the Circus spectacle.”

- Ovid, Fasti (V.185-190)

Here are some quotes for this holiday season:

“Dancing women in woad, waving antlers to ancient gods of fertility. Children wearing self-woven blossom and wicker May coronets roaming among picnickers. And, of course, the high point of the night – the burning of a specially built, 30ft-high Wicker Man, stuffed with scraps of paper on which we had written our hopes for the coming year. A large crowd, children perched on shoulders, pressed closer into the insistent heat for a better view as leaping flames licked the man’s torso and consumed his legs. And then he shuddered, buckled, and collapsed sideways down into the dark Hampshire earth. The Pagan watchers reveled in the grisly ritual. The Wicker Man is dead; summer is a-coming in. Afterwards, we all trooped home through a wet field, oddly elated.” - Victoria Lambert, The Telegraph

“Another world appeared with the fire, and vanished with it. It was the world of water and air, earth and mountain, sun and stars, clouds and sky, the ancient world which was always there and always had been, and which one never thought about. But fire came, you could see it. And once you had seen it, you couldn’t help seeing it everywhere, in all fireplaces and ovens, in all factories and manufacturing plants, and in all the cars driving around on the roads, parked in garages or outside the houses in the evenings, for the fire burned in them, too. Even the cars were deeply archaic.”Karl Ove Knausgaard, New Statesman

“As English May Day celebrations evolved the idea of a May King and May Queen evolved with it. May Day celebrations eventually became community gatherings, a time for feasting, games, and the like. May Kings and Queens served as “masters of ceremonies” over such events, and are probably not much different than the modern winner of a county fair beauty pageant. Like most of the things being written about here the idea of May Royalty went through various periods of popularity. In the Nineteenth Century the idea rose in popularity once more (though the tradition never ceased in certain areas), and was eventually linked to the ideas of fertility gods as popularized by Frazer. By the early 1930′s interest in May Kings and May Queens began to wane in England, but with the celebration of May Day essentially a pagan tradition linked explicitly to the turn of the seasons it got picked up by Modern Paganism in short order and has been a part of our Beltane celebrations ever since.”Jason Mankey, Patheos.com

Spring flowers. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl.

Spring flowers. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl.

“It’s Walpurgis Night soon! This is a very special event and a great way to experience local traditions like big bonfires and old folk songs, especially in Sweden. Walpurgis (in Swedish: Valborg) on April 30 is widely celebrated in Scandinavia and is a public holiday in Sweden [...] if you can’t make it to Scandinavia this year, celebrate your own holiday at home by indulging in a few traditional Walpurgis Night / May Day treats. When bonfires light up the night skies across the Scandinavian peninsula, families and friends gather for the season’s first picnics, enjoying dishes like gravlax, herring salad, and fresh strawberries. Finns welcome Spring on May 1st by frying up delicate, bird’s-nest-shaped Fritters (Tippaleivät) and drinking lemony Spring Mead (Sima).”Terri Mapes, About.com

“Beltane is fast upon us – here in Suffolk, the hawthorn is in bloom already, and I have heard the first cuckoo of summer.  The oak leaves are just coming out, and the beech and ash are lagging behind, sluggish after their long sleep.  The garden is abloom, and the forest is filled with bluebells, their soft energy shimmering in the sunlight. It is, indeed, Beltane.”Joanna van der Hoeven, PaganSquare

“Just imagine yourself waking at dawn to gather wildflowers from a meadow, in a basket to be left on a neighbor’s doorstep. At day’s end there would be a ritual of dancing around a maypole made of birch wood and decorated with flowers, then the crowning of the May Queen and the giving of May Baskets filled with flowers or sweet. A great way to celebrate the day this year is by reviving the old May Day custom of May baskets. They are a fun tradition for both children and adults, and a great way to surprise a friend or loved one. They can be inexpensively made, and crafting one with your children is a fun activity.”Laura Boulton, The Darien Times

“The highlight of the celebration is usually the burning of an effigy of the Winter Witch, who has brought cold and fallowness. Once she is gone, it is the time for planting and fertility. The April 30 holiday, exactly six months from All Hallows’ Eve, is called Čarodějnice in Czech and better known in Europe as Walpurgisnacht. The biggest organized celebration in Prague, and one of the biggest in Central Europe, is in Prague 6 at Ladronka. Other smaller celebrations — both official and ad-hoc — can be found in many Prague neighborhood parks, as well as villages across the country. [...] The Czech name Čarodějnice translates directly to “the witches.” Sometimes it is called by the longer name, pálení čarodějnic, or burning of the witches. The more universal name Walpurgis Night or Walpurgisnacht comes from Saint Walpurga, an 8th century English missionary. Her feast day is May 1, and over the years the eve of her feast day got combined with the traditional pre-spring feasts held halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.”Raymond Johnston, Prague Post

“Regarding Beltaine–our modern (American) Pagan conception of Beltaine as a festival of peace and sex seems to come more from the unfortunate legacies of the 60′s than it does from the folklore.  John O’Donahue referred to Irish customs of burying an egg in the field of a wealthier neighbor (presumably a landlord) on the night before Beltain in order to rot all his year’s crops–that is, economic sabotage, an older equivalent to a general strike, and Walpurigsnacht celebrations on the continent are considerably darker than the neo-Pagan notion of lover’s trysts on bonfire-lit hills. I find myself wondering how much of our collective pastoral conception of Pagan traditions, particularly Beltaine, has affected our relationship to the urban.  Rather than a site of the sacred, has it become a world walled-off from the gods?  It’s undeniable that a few nights spent out in a forest does much for the soul, but such retreats are available only to those with the money for an automobile and the ability to take time off from work–that is, only to certain classes of people.  Is access to the sacred only for those with money?”Rhyd Wildermuth, Patheos.com

May you all be especially blessed during this season, and a very happy Samhain to those of you living in the Southern hemisphere!

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://saffronrose.livejournal.com/ A. Marina Fournier

    I should be in bed, sleep. It’s 1.20am, and the alarm goes off at 4am, when I should spring (boing, boing) into action, in the pre-dawn dark, to dress and to drive to E. Palo Alto’s Baylands Nature Preserve. Why? The local Morris sides, however many there are this year, will come to dance up the sun, and bring the Summer in.

    I am so not a morning person. This was easier, living in Santa Cruz, where this celebration was maybe a 15 minute local-streets drive, instead of three freeways and 45 minutes away, while not quite awake–but the dancers all rise & drive even earlier.

    I’ve done this for 20-25 years now, and I’ll keep on doing it. If I’m there in time, the dancers will not have started, and we will wait in the dark for the sound of Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance, accompanied by a sole recorder, punctuated by soft footfalls.

    When the sun rises over the East Bay mountain range, it has a soundtrack of local waterbirds, and many friends are here to observe the turning of the year. I won’t even need a sweater this year, more’s the pity, due to a heat wave.

    Maybe I’ll sleep tonight. If not, there’s a nap upon returning home.
    Blessed Beltane to all of you in the North, Blessed Samhain to those in the South, and may your holiday, be it neither of these, bring you blessings and joy.