April 2, 2004

May Day

Hear Yea, Here Yea! May Day is coming! How many times does May 1 fall on a Saturday? Twelve, in the average life, according to my rudimentary calculations learned in parochial school. So next month is one of the few times left in your lifetime that you will have a Saturday night to celebrate May Day! Shalom Seacoast is ready to party!

May Day is a grand day of celebration in Europe and particularly in England. The ancient Celts and Saxons celebrated May 1st as Beltane or the day of fire. Bel was the Celtic god of the Sun. It marked the beginning of summer, time to move with the flocks up to summer pastures.

The Saxons would have an evening of games celebrating the end of winter and the return of the sun and the fertility of the soil. The revelers, led by Diana, the Goddess of the hunt, and Herne, the Horned God, would travel up the hill shouting, chanting and singing, while blowing hunting horns. Many would wear animal masks and costumes.

As society became more agrarian, Diana became the Queen of May and Herne became Robin Goodfellow (a predecessor of Robin Hood) or the Green Man. The Green Man would become the Lord of Misrule for the day.

People would put up a maypole by taking a growing tree and bringing it into the village. People would go off into the woods to collect trees and boughs and get into all sorts of hanky panky. May Day used to be a day of great sexual license. One writer reported that a hundred youths had gone off into the woods overnight and “scarcely the third part returned home undefiled.”

The puritans banned May Day by an act of Parliament in 1644. No wonder the customs never made it to America. It was restored in 1660, but it never was quite the same. The sexual elements went underground. And later the Victorians overlaid a more moral tone on the festival, emphasizing innocence.

Like Halloween, this is a time when witches, fairies and ghosts wander freely. The veil between the worlds is thin. The Queen of the Fairies rides out on a snow-white horse looking for mortals to lure away to Fairyland for seven years. The fairies, pagan spirits, would help Earth to clad herself once more in green. Green is the color of the fairies.

May Day could be the oldest religious festival in the Northern Hemisphere. Ritual human sacrifice to a death/fertility goddess was an early practice.

Here at Shalom Seacoast we are committed to reviving May Day in America. We think that the human sacrifice thing may be going a bit too far. But we need the fairies and spirits to be among us. Mostly, we need a reason for a party.

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