May Day. Mary’s Month, Walpurgis Night, dancing around the May Pole, the start of Summer in some traditions, and a cross quarter day on the solar calendar. Oh, and the communists have tried to co-opt it as a labor celebration. Sorry, not interested in “political” holidays.
What’s a ‘cross quarter day’?
However a less-used parallel system holds that June 21st is actually Midsummer’s Day, which then requires the start of summer to be in early May. This date and three others like it are known as the Cross-Quarter Days, because they are evenly spaced between the fundamental Quarter Days of the Solstices and Equinoxes. The Cross-Quarter Days thus mark the middle of each season under our current system, or seasonal boundaries under the alternative system.
So what is this day? What makes it “special”? Two things. First, it is a ‘cross quarter day’, or 1/2 way between solstice and equinox. Old Celts and Druids held the cross quarter days as more important than the solstice and equinox days in many cases. More importantly, being 1/2 way from the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, it was held to be the official start of Summer. (Modern traditions on when summer starts are more variable, and often based on local weather tendencies. Then there is also that small issue of the bottom 1/2 of the planet ;-)
So there’s a wiki for May Day and it has some interesting points.
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane. Many pagan celebrations were abandoned or Christianized during the process of conversion in Europe. A more secular version of May Day continues to be observed in Europe and America. In this form, May Day may be best known for its tradition of dancing the maypole dance and crowning of the Queen of the May. Various Neopagan groups celebrate reconstructed (to varying degrees) versions of these customs on May 1.
The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary’s month, and in these circles May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this connection, in works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary’s head will often be adorned with flowers in a May crowning.
A fairly typical pattern of western holidays. Largely indirectly tied to the seasons and relative positions of the sun, moon, and earth (including axial tilt). Originating in our firm ties to the cycle of life in the land and farming. Then empires, such as the Roman Empire, bend them to a larger social pattern. Eventually the conversion to Christianity in the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church plants a “Church Holiday” on top of the prior traditions. Finally, a conversion to a ‘secular holiday’ as the political correctness movement tries to stamp out all hint of public faith and tradition.
So what Holiday (from Holy Day…) are we celebrating on May Day? Well, that is up to you. There is a bit of “jitter” in the exact timing (and many religious traditions get all wound up in fighting over minor variations in schedule). Some traditions (like the old Druids) have the “day” beginning at sundown, so start “May Day” on the last day of April at sun down. As I’m near the end of the planetary rotation, my May Day starts when most other folks on the planet are already nearing the end of their day. (So this posting is a day late for many folks). But even there, the ‘drift’ in the formal calendar vs the solar calendar means that we are no longer exactly aligned with the ‘cross quarter day’. So once again we have one of those opportunities for folks to bicker and fuss and divide over exactly when is the Holiday. In truth, it does not matter.
So pick what suits you and your schedule. The “Official Date” for TCOTSC is the ‘cross quarter day’ as observed in a solar calendar. For all practical purposes, it is May 1st. If another day is more convenient for you, no bad thing happens from celebrating May Day / Beltane / Mary’s Month /Flora’s Day / Walpurgis Night a day or two off of the exact solar alignment. The important point is simply to realize that the cold is ending, the warmth is coming, any final snows are nearer the end point of cold and any warm days are harbingers of things to come. In short, it’s a time to party.
So break out the Altar (be it a minimal P.O.B. version or a Delux Webber) prepare a glorious Burnt Offering, pour some generous Wave Offerings (saluting the Re/Ra rising point and the Amen setting point) and give thanks for Carbon and our Carbon Based Life.
So what were some of the older / other traditions?
Flora is the Roman Goddess of flowering plants, especially those that bear fruit. Spring, of course, is Her season, and She has elements of a Love-Goddess, with its attendant attributes of fertility, sex, and blossoming. She is quite ancient; the Sabines are said to have named a month for Her (which corresponds to our and the Roman April), and She was known among the Samnites as well as the Oscans, where She was called Flusia. She was originally the Goddess specifically of the flowering crops, such as the grain or fruit-trees, and Her function was to make the grain, vegetables and trees bloom so that autumn’s harvest would be good. She was invoked to avert rust, a nasty fungal disease of plants that causes orange growths the exact color of rusting iron, and which was (is) an especial problem affecting wheat. Hers is the beginning of the process that finds its completion with Pomona, the Goddess of Fruit and the Harvest; and like Pomona, Flora had Her own flamen, one of a small number of priests each in service to a specific Deity. The flamens were said to have been instituted by Numa, the legendary second King of Rome who succeeded Romulus; and whether Numa really existed or not, the flamens were undoubtedly of ancient origin, as were the Deities they served.
In later times Flora became the Goddess of all flowering plants, including the ornamental varieties. Her name is related to Latin floris, meaning naturally enough “a flower”, with the additional meaning of “[something] in its prime”; other related words have meanings like “prospering”, “flourishing”, “abounding”, and “fresh or blooming”.
Or in English traditions:
The Three Milkings, or Þrimilci-mōnaþ of the old English.
Roodmas was a Christian Mass celebrated in England at midnight on May 1.
Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a Maypole. Much of this tradition derive from the pagan Anglo-Saxon customs held during “Þrimilci-mōnaþ” (the Old English name for the month of May meaning Month of Three Milkings).
May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. With Christianity came agricultural feasts such as Plough Sunday (the first Sunday in January), Rogationtide, Harvest Festival and May Day. It is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. Since May 1st is the Feast of St Philip & St James, they became the patron saints of workers. Seeding has been completed by this date and it was convenient to give farm labourers a day off. Perhaps the most significant of the traditions is the Maypole, around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons.
So a Feast of St. Philip and St. James, or just a Feast of Fertility and some revelry.
The wiki says “Since the reform of the Catholic Calendar, May 1 is the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, the patron saint of workers.” so perhaps it’s St. Joseph… Consult your local Catholic ;-)
Walpurgis – Walpurgisnacht
Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht), the night before May Day, is similar to Halloween in that it has to do with supernatural spirits. And like Halloween, Walpurgisnacht is of pagan origin. The bonfires seen in today’s celebration reflect those pagan origins and the human desire to drive away the winter cold and welcome spring.
Celebrated mainly in Sweden, Finnland, Estonia, Latvia, and Germany, Walpurgisnacht gets its name from Saint Walburga (or Walpurga), a woman born in what is now England in 710. Die heilige Walpurga traveled to Germany and became a nun at the convent of Heidenheim in Württemberg. Following her death in 778 (or 779), she was made a saint, with May 1 as her saint day.
So looks like Bonfires are part of some traditions. Massive salute to Sacred Carbon and the release of dead carbon from wood back into the cycle of life.
Again we see the link between past “pagan” roots in a solar calendar and an overlay with a Christian tradition.
More from the wiki:
May Day has been celebrated in Ireland since pagan times as the feast of Bealtaine and in latter times as Mary’s day. Traditionally, bonfires were lit to mark the coming of summer and to banish the long nights of winter. Officially Irish May Day holiday is the first Monday in May. Old traditions such as bonfires are no longer widely observed, though the practice still persists in some places across the country. Limerick, Clare and many other people in other counties still keep on this tradition.
Again the tradition of bonfires to drive out the last of the winter cold. If you are in a jurisdiction and location that allows for a bonfire, it is a fine way to celebrate the day. If legally or logistically encumbered, even just lighting a candle or kerosene lamp can be a ‘miniature bonfire’…
On May Day, the Romanians celebrate the arminden (or armindeni), the beginning of summer, symbolically tied with the protection of crops and farm animals. The name comes from Slavonic Jeremiinŭ dĭnĭ, meaning prophet Jeremiah’s day, but the celebration rites and habits of this day are apotropaic and pagan (possibly originating in the cult of the god Pan).
The day is also called ziua pelinului (mugwort day) or ziua bețivilor (drunkards’ day) and it is celebrated to insure good wine in autumn and, for people and farm animals alike, good health and protection from the elements of nature (storms, hail, illness, pests). People would have parties in the nature with lăutari (fiddlers), for those who could afford it. There, it is customary to roast and eat lamb, also eat new mutton cheese and drink mugwort-flavoured wine or just red wine to refresh the blood and get protection from diseases. On the way back, the men wear lilac or mugwort flowers on their hats.
In Romania we’ve got the prophet Jeremiah… OK, so the Christian Church was not all that coordinated in planting their folks on top of existing natural festivals…
In the USA things are more mixed. Due to the Communists attempting to co-opt the day as Workers Day it’s not celebrated all that much any more. (It was when I was a kid). Yet some places still do. There is a ‘Green Root’ tradition with some Pagans celebrating and some left wing folks with a ‘red root’ tradition doing the Workers Day thing. There was even an official “Law Day” poke at the USSR (that near as I can tell went nowhere). But the one I like most is Hawaii:
In Hawaii, May Day is also known as Lei Day, and it is normally set aside as a day to celebrate island culture in general and native Hawaiian culture in particular. Invented by poet and local newspaper columnist Eric Kosciuszko in the 1920s, it has since been adopted by state and local government, as well as local residents, and has taken on the sense of a general spring celebration. The first official Lei Day was proposed in 1927 in Honolulu by poet and artist Don Blanding. Leonard “Red” and Ruth Hawk composed “May Day Is Lei Day in Hawai’i”, the traditional holiday song. Originally it was a contemporary fox trot, later rearranged as the Hawaiian hula song performed today.
So, to recycle an old joke, looks like it’s a good day to get lei’ed. ;-) At least in Hawaii…
But the core meaning of the day has not changed. Through empires and churches and communists and more.
It is a celebration of the ending of cold and the arrival of warmth.
(in some cases “real soon now” ;-)
A celebration of life.
So get out there and start celebrating if you haven’t already!
For many Hispanics, they celebrate on the 3rd of May as Fiesta de las Cruces that has a root back in the pagans and the Roman / Byzantine Empire transition to Christianity.
Religiously, the festival is rooted in the search by the Byzantine Empress Saint Helena for the cross on which Jesus died, but the popular traditions connected to the festival certainly originate from pagan traditions brought to Spain by the Roman Empire (see May Day).
The legend is that Emperor Constantine I, in the sixth year of his reign, confronted the barbarians on the banks of the Danube, in a battle where victory was believed to be impossible because of the great size of the enemy army. One night, Constantine had a vision of a cross in the sky, and by it the words “In hoc signo vincis” (With this sign, you shall be victorious). The emperor had a cross made and put it at the front of his army, which won an easy victory over the enemy multitude. On returning to the city and learning the significance of the cross, Constantine was baptized as a Christian and gave orders to construct Christian churches. He sent his mother, Saint Helena, to Jerusalem in search of the True Cross, the cross on which Jesus died.
In short, it doesn’t matter much if you start your celebration on April 30th, or May 1st, or even May 3rd. It doesn’t even matter if you are celebrating the end of the cold and the coming warmth, the position of the sun at a cross quarter day, or a ‘patron saint’. What matters is that this is a day to be in touch with life. To recognize the cycle of times. That we are a product of the Creator Force, powered through the life force from the sun, via a carbon cycle. The beginning of the new explosion of life as spring turns to summer.
Southern Hemisphere Note
There is an interesting problem with most holidays. They come from a northern hemisphere root and perspective. So what to do? Again, it is for the individual to choose. Those who follow a cultural based tradition will stay ‘in sync’ with the above pattern. Those who choose to stay aligned with the original and seasonal cycles will instead be celebrating a different day. Samhain (pronounced Sow-een). Yes, Halloween. All Hallows Eve is the night before November 1st or Samhain. It is still a time for bonfires and celebration, but now it is the last warmth of Summer / Fall turning to the arrival of Winter.
Catholics planted “All Saint’s Day” on November 1st, so it’s also a Christian celebration.
You still hear people doubt it, even when you show them that Halloween is All-Hallows’-Eve which is the night-before-All-Saints’- Day. Some tell me they understand that Halloween pranks were a post-Reformation contribution to plague Catholics who kept the vigil of All Saints. Now it is possible that Halloween was abused for such a purpose; nevertheless, during all the Christian centuries up until the simplification of the Church calendar in 1956, it was a liturgical vigil in its own right and thus has a reason for being. Learning this, one pious lady of our acquaintance was heard to say: “Oh, I’m so glad to know that. I was about to write my congressman and suggest the whole thing be outlawed.”
A celebration much like our Halloween, with bonfires and feasting on apples and nuts and harvest fruits, was part of pagan worship for centuries. The Britons celebrated in honor of their sun-god with bonfires, a tribute to the light that brought them abundant harvest. At the same time they saluted Samhain, their “lord of death,” who was thought to gather together at last the souls of the year’s dead which had been consigned to the bodies of animals in punishment for their sins. The Romans celebrated the same kind of festival at this time in honor of their goddess Pomona, a patroness of fruits and gardens. Whether the Church “baptized” these customs or chose this season for her feasts of the dead independent of them, their coincidence shows again how alike men are when they seek God and His ways, give praise, use the language of symbols to express the inexpressible.
It was in the eighth century that the Church appointed a special date for the feast of All Saints, followed by a day in honor of her soon-to-be saints, the feast of All Souls. She chose this time of year, it is supposed, because in her part of the world it was the time of barrenness on the earth. The harvest was in, the summer done, the world brown and drab and mindful of death. Snow had not yet descended to comfort and hide the bony trees or blackened fields; so with little effort man could look about and see a meditation on death and life hereafter.
Apparently how you spent the vigil of All Saints depended on where you lived in Christendom. In Brittany the night was solemn and without a trace of merriment. On their “night of the dead” and for forty-eight hours thereafter, the Bretons believed the poor souls were liberated from Purgatory and were free to visit their old homes. The vigil for the souls, as well as the saints, had to be kept on this night because of course the two days were consecutive feasts — and a vigil is never kept on a feast.
So since the cross quarter days are symmetrical and since the holiday schedule is both Pagan and Christian (and in cycle with nature) it does not really matter which schedule you choose to follow. If in doubt (for example, for folks on the Equator) one could choose to celebrate both Samhain and Beltane on the same day. In truth, what we are celebrating is the great Cycle Of Carbon Life, that it aligns with other traditions is largely a convenience. We are all in the same solar driven cycles, we are all faced with the beginning, growth, decline, and death cycle of spring, summer, fall and winter. So “call it what you will”, it is all the same reality. We don’t really need to ‘break it up’ into 8 pieces (equinox, solstice, cross quarter days) with special meanings. Those are just to give us a special awareness of a given state of the cycle of life. It is the whole cycle that is being recognized and celebrated at each point.
We are at the end of one part of the cycle, the start of the next. Take a moment to realize that transition, and our transitory nature in life. “This life is not a dress rehearsal. Take Big Bites!” (Perhaps a quote from me, or I might have picked it up somewhere.) So celebrate, liberate some Sacred Carbon, and enjoy the warmth!