Saturday, April 30, 2011

May Day

In the ancient days of the Celts, when people lived by the Wheel of the Year, May Eve (then called Beltane, for Bel the Celtic god of fire) was one of eight seasonal celebrations. Halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, it marked the  passage from the long months of chilly darkness to the season of light and warmth, when the fields and forests became green and the sky became wonderfully blue.

This joyful event was celebrated with a night of games and feasting and merry-making, with bonfires and dancing and happy song.

In the Old Tradition, it was the night when the veil between the Earthworld and the Otherworld became thin and nearly transparent. The Fairy Folk were known to come out on that night to dance.

By the Middle Ages every English village had its Maypole. The bringing in of the Maypole from the woods was a great occasion and was accompanied by much rejoicing and merrymaking. The Maypoles were of all sizes. And one village would compete with another to show who could produce the tallest Maypole. Maypoles were usually set up for the day in small towns, but in London and the larger towns they were erected permanently.

The Romans brought the rituals of the Floralia festival to the British Isles. The beginning of May was a very popular feast time for the Romans. It was devoted primarily to the worship of Flora, the goddess of flowers. It was in her honor a five day celebration, called the Floralia, was held. This festival would start from April 28 and end on May 2.  Gradually the rituals of the Floralia were added to those of the Beltane. 

Many of today's May Day customs resemble these combined traditions. The celebrating of May Day by dancing and singing around a maypole tied with colorful streamers or ribbons, choosing a May queen, and leaving May baskets on the doorknobs or front stoops of friends and neighbors -- all are leftovers of the old European traditions.