In the northern hemisphere, April showers bring May flowers, or so the saying goes. We see the earth waking up around us at a frenetic, energetic pace. Bare stems on trees that survived winter sprout green buds, lush flowers, and shiny leaves. May marks the best of spring: the fiery heat of full summer has not yet emerged, and the blistering cold of winter appears to be a just a memory. Traditionally, the month of May invites a celebration of fertility created through fun, fortitude, flexibility, and foundation.
While many may see the definitive start of May celebrations as May Day or the sabbat Beltane, imagine six days of games and celebration, where everyone, including sex workers, revels in the full emergence of spring and fertility with the release of fertile animals, such as hares and goats. This is the traditional Roman festival of Floralia, honoring the goddess Flora, held from April 27-May 3 in the Julian calendar (May 11-May 16 in the modern Gregorian calendar). As a festival of the people, and not just the elite or upper classes, everyone celebrated, including prostitutes.
As a precursor to raucous modern May Day festivals, Floralia symbolizes the ability to let go of inhibitions and to frolic in the present. Spring flowers bloom and die, but while they live they capture moments of pure joy. Other festivals, such as Maiouma, where nocturnal revelry reigned, serve as a reminder that the heart of the month comes down to fun.
For most of the world, the start of May means International Worker’s Day. While Labor Day in the United States in September is a holiday now associated with picnics, the traditional end of summer, holiday sales, and politicians giving speeches that honor the common laborer, the start of May and Worker’s Day highlights the strength and bravery that many undertake on a daily basis for worker’s rights. Although the timing of the Haymarket Affair led to the eventual designation of May 1 as International Worker’s Day, the underlying problems and themes continue to this day.
The fight for economic security, a mandatory eight hour work day, the rights for all workers to earn a livable wage, the right to work in a safe environment, and the right to collectively bargain for changes are the bedrock of many issues that are still being fought. Even though the legal Labor Day in the United States is in September, marches, demonstrations, and protests to bring awareness to the importance of the worker and to workers’ issues traditionally take play on May Day. In 2017, workers protested immigrant rights against the wishes of the governmental designation of May 1, 2017 as “Loyalty Day.” The continued willingness to use the energy of spring to demonstrate strength of character and resilience is what makes International Worker’s Day an important May celebration.
A free press demonstrates fortitude by having the courage to shed light on issues that are not always popular. The UN General Assembly declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day, and the current theme is Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation. The freedom to express oneself without restrictions is one that many enjoy during the positive upbeat festivities in May;however, acknowledgement of the role that a free press plays remains vitally important in continuing to have such expression.
May is a time of great flexibility. The weather can easily change. One day a few plants are sprouting, and a week later, an entire field of bushes displays a lush array of flowers. Completion and beginning can seemingly occur in one breath. The rush of college graduations in the United States that occur in May simultaneously launch the graduate into a new world and complete a long phase of individual development for the student. It can be a mix of hearty congratulations, gifts, and parties one week, and hitting the reality of finding a permanent job or a new stability the next.
The traditional commencement speech marks the rite of passage from the walls of academic learning to the open vistas of the larger world. It is no accident that the speech reflects the speaker’s own life and experiences as lessons that are passed onto the new graduates. Works of wisdom such as the final work by Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You Will Go and his earlier, less controversial I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew are classic gifts.
Graduation symbolizes achievement on many levels, including the ability to take charge of one’s own path through the many challenges that life brings. Each year is a renewal of this celebration in a variety of forms, such as watching high school students arrive in colorful gowns and dashing tuxedos to celebrate the coming end of the school year at prom. From the presentation of a wrist corsage or pinning on a tuxedo of a boutonniere, to the official photo outside the venue, to dancing for hours to music, it is the experience of prom that provides memories.
Graduation and prom are institutional symbols of achievement that mark conclusions and beginnings. They require a willingness to accept the change and to start in a new direction. Such flexibility allows us to enjoy all that the month of May has to offer.
May is also a common month for weddings. How better to celebrate change, fertility, and foundation than with a wedding? Many who come to Paganism do so from other traditions and faith practices given by families of origin. A wedding is a formal rite of marriage, and as such is seen as foundational for the continuation of a strong society. The ceremonial space often includes flowers, as bridal wreaths and bouquets symbolize the hope for a fertile, long-lasting union. We toast to the health and happiness of couple.
Beltane is another celebration that provides a foundation for the rest of the year. Whether it is placing yellow flowers on doors, leaping over a bonfire, or bringing a bit of the community bonfire back to one’s home to light the family hearth fire or altar, Beltane provides a chance to start fresh. Traditionally, the start of summer, the sabbat Beltane takes the spark, the fire that burns literally and asks us to use it figuratively and spiritually in our lives. Beltane celebrates the act of union, be it the physical act of sex or the symbolic creation of something new.
One of the largest foundational holidays in May in the United States is Mother’s Day. Although the holiday has become more commercialized with sales, the obligatory Mother’s Day card, text, flowers, and calls, the sentiment remains one of celebrating family, and in particular, maternal bonds. Restaurants tend to fill with families taking “Mom” out so that she does not have to cook for the family. Calling Mom becomes a popular way to maintain a sense of growth and continuation. We celebrate foundation with that call or remembrance of our mothers.
In the end, we plant in May, or when the soil is receptive, moist, and able to promote maximum growth for harvest later in the year. We use the warmth of the sun, the diurnal flame that warms our planet and our bodies to grow, to begin unions, to release ideas, and to remember why life is so much fun in the first place. We celebrate what it means to be human. After all, it is the laughter and the uncertainty that allow us to embrace all that this time has to offer.