May is the month that marks the end of the cold half of the year as nature embraces its fertility and the world teems with life. The season casts its magic, and all around us, nature responds: trees unfurled their leaves, flowers burst into bloom, birds croon as they build their nests, while squirrels begin their mating races. There is magic at foot in the world all around us yet many turn a blind eye as they maintain their doldrum existence. Open your eyes to the life around you. It's time to shake off those winter blues and bring in the May!
May 1st has long herald the coming of Summer as agricultural societies rejoiced in the return of life and the promise of a bountiful season. In a world where prosperity depended so much on the weather and the changing of the seasons, the celebration of the First of May was as much a part of the medieval calendar as Christmas and Easter.
Long ago the Celtic festival of Beltane signaled the end of winter-half, the unfarmable-half of the year as they turned the surviving cattle out to their summer grazing pastures. With conquering Rome came the May feast of Flora, the goddess of flowers, and Maia, the goddess of rebirth whom the month of May is named and the act of 'Bringing in the May' was adopted. The Middle Ages introduced the "Queen of the May" chosen from the prettiest of the young girls. It was her lot to lead the dance around a maypole decorated with colorful flowers.
"Bringing in the May meant going out into the woods and fields on May Eve, the night before May Day, to gather flowers and greenery for decorations, and also to enjoy the many amorous possibilities of an unchaperoned night in the woods.
By the Middle Ages, every English village had its Maypole. The earliest Maypoles were tall trees stripped of their branches, and one village would vie with the next to show who could produce the tallest one. On May Day itself, the Maypole served as the centerpiece for sports, dancing and games that took place around it." -Jennifer Cutting, a folklife specialist in the American Folklife Center.
Marjorie Rowling in Life in Medieval Times [Perigree,1973] writes, "The Green Man makes an appearances in later medieval records as a Lord of Misrule for the day, leading the revelers wherever he pleased and poking fun at the authorities. Morris Dancers were a part of the celebrations, usually at the end of the day, when the feasting and dancing began in earnest. The dancers were always male and often dressed as animals."
"Both May Eve and May Day were traditionally a time of letting your hair down and getting a little crazy, of acting out your spring fever. But as early as 1240, the Bishop of Lincoln complained in writing that too many priests were also joining in the fun! " - Jennifer Cutting, a folklife specialist in the American Folklife Center.
As Europe became Christianized, pagan holidays morphed and merged into our modern Christian holidays as with Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saint's Day. Today we are free to embrace the simple joys of celebrating the reenergizing of the natural world. The customs of the May Day of old have been reintroduced by neopagans whom reconstruct the old traditions at modern May festivals that include: the crowning of a local girl as Beltane Queen, Jack in the Green, feasts, bonfires and dancing.
The first of May once was the first day of Summer with the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) as Midsummer and its lure has been recorded by writers through the ages. In 1561 Chaucer described going a-maying in The Court of Love, "And furth goth all the Court, both most and lest, To feche the floures fressh, and braunche and blome; And namly, hawthorn brought both page and grome. With fressh garlandes, partie blewe and whyte, And thaim rejoysen in their greet delyt.
Modern songs still proclaim the reawakening power of the Natural world. From "The hills are alive with the sound of music, songs they have sung for a thousand years." To the more recently "Summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the street" You only have to look out your window to note that May is a sensual month. The world is alive and it is celebrating this fact. Embrace the energy dancing all around. Allow it to awaken your senses. Celebrate life by joining in the dance of creation and let your spirit soar. Put on some music and give in to the lure of rhythm by abandoning yourself to dance.
If the idea of giving into abandon makes your cringe, you can celebrate in a tamer mode. Take part in an age old custom of bring fresh flowers into your home. Evoke memories and emotions by infusing the air in your home and workplace with floral scents. Invite Summer into your kitchen with leafy green salads and dishes topped with strawberries. Add flavor to your recipes with the tangy juice of lime and bright zest of lemon.
While May Day may be best known for its tradition of dancing around the maypole or the crowning of the Queen of the May, in the late 20th century the giving of the May basket was adopted. Small baskets of sweets or flowers were left anonymously on a doorstep or tied to the door handle.
Start your own tradition by creating a May basket. They can be fancy or as simple as you want them to be. If you are working with your children you can cut colorful pieces of construction paper into strips and then have your children weaving together to form a cone basket with a thicker stripe secured at the top for a handle. If you are especially creative, you can use a Kleenex box to shape your weaving and then decorate with a garland of paper flowers or weave your paper strips or lengths of ribbon through a strawberry basket. If weaving does not appeal to you, simply find a small attractive basket and decorate it with ribbon. Fill your basket with candy, baked treats or flowers and leave anonymously on a friend's, neighbor's, teacher's or loved one's doorstep. To keep it safe from marauding animals, if the handle allows, you can also tie it to the door handle.
To quote from the Lincoln Journal Star, "To do it right, you have to make something real. Something with your hands from something that takes shape in your heart. Something with color and sugar and softness and, if you're doing it right, a little fear.
And then -- and this should be the hardest part -- you have to do something. You have to let go of your big sister's hand and take your first step across the lawn, toward the closed door that suddenly seems so far away."
It's never too late to develop a new tradition. The memories we form from celebrating holidays with family and friends is what makes life rich. "When we set aside special time to spend with family and close friends (often the holidays), we are potentially adding to a reservoir of meaningful memories that we can dip into when life is difficult and the world is uncertain." - Clay Routledge, Ph.D., Death Love, Sex Magic. This is what life is about. This is what makes our life memorable. Do you want to slip one day to the next as next week turns into next month? Or do you want to live? Open your eyes to the world around you. Join in the dance of the season with a joyful heart and smile. Your life is what you make it. Join the May day dance with the choice to live!