Monday, April 12, 2010

May Day: Pagans, Christians, and a Whole Lot of Pole-Dancing

It's an all too familiar scenario. You are sleeping and comfortable, snuggled in your bed while dreaming wondrous and exotic visions. Perhaps you are a fairy, flying about with your perky little wings, possibly sprinkling some sort of radiant dust. Or maybe you just received a parachute package from your luxurious CEO job, relaxing on the beach as your colleagues are unanimously arrested. Or, perhaps, your band just signed with Atlantic records, and....and....Suddenly your cellphone ringtones the latest Kevin Federline masterpiece, waking you crudely from your slumber. It is, of course, your mother.

"It's time!" she says gleefully, "Go wash your face in the dew!"

You groan. You resist. But in the end, you drag yourself up, stumble out in the backyard, and wash your face in the crisp morning dew. It is, after all May Day, and who are you to break hundreds of years of tradition?

"But what IS May Day?" you ask, beckoning into the burning hue of the rising sun. "Where does it come from - and what's with that GIANT POLE?"

Well, here are a few items to ponder as your your face dries. It should be noted that May Day is somewhat elusive - some of these may be more legend than historical fact. Perhaps the thing to do is just take a Valium and go with it.

- May Day celebrations go back to pre-Christian Europe, particularly with the Celtic Beltane celebration and the Germanic Walpurgis-Night. Beltane marked the beginning of the Gaelic pastoral season, and involved dancing around fires, baking cakes and burning effigies. Walpurgis coincides with an older Germanic holiday, but is named after St. Walburga, the Abbess of the monastery in Heidenheim who died in 779 AD. Celebrations included bonfires and singing. Both celebrations were notoriously rockous and may be the origin of the phrase "BYOM" (Bring Your Own Mead).

- The maypole is possibly a phallic symbol originally associated with the worship of Germanic figures such a Freyr. However, a more likely association is with the Yggdrasil or "World Tree" linking various realms in Norse Mythology. To be sure, Germanic peoples had an affinity for giant trees such as Thor's Oak and massive carving decorations. As Gorgok the Pig-Enthusiast used to say, "Sometimes a pole is just a pole."

- In Sweden, the maypole is called "Midsommarstång," and usually appears as a cross with two rings hanging from the cross-beams. The pole is considered male, and the rings female. No symbolism to see here (wink), please move on.

- Common maypole-dancing is ancient and dates to the early pagan festivals. However, the ribbon dancing most associated with it today originated in the 18th century, deriving from French and Italian art dances which spread to England.

- May Day is half a year from November 1st, which is associated with the pagan festival of Samhain. This is just a little random info for the loin-cloth-frolicker in you.

- As Europe transitioned into the Christian era (or the "Great-Last-Call," as the Pagans say), the traditions of May Day became increasingly secularized. The Puritans in England, of course, outlawed Maypole dancing, but as soon as Cromwell was out Maypoles sprung up across London like a giant Chia Pet.

- The May 1st "Roodmas" took place in England at midnight every year. A Christian mass, it's likely origin was to counter the pagan traditions still ingrained in the population. The legend spread that witches and warlocks gathered on May 1st to honor the devil and diminish Christian sacraments. But then, up in the sky, along came....Roodmas!

- The May Queen, or the Goddess of Spring, is a symbol of the power of nature (Led Zeppelin unavailable for comment). It is unknown how long celebrations have been crowning a May Queen, but the tradition continues to this day in many parades and festivities. Depending on the city, the May Queen may or may not be female.

- The tradition of washing ones face in the morning dew possibly goes back to Beltane, and is said to restore beauty and revive freshness. As Mother Goose famously said: "The fair maid who, the first of May, Goes to the fields at break of day, And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree, Will ever after handsome be." Although first marketed as "Ye Olde Botoxe," the morning dew industry had to shut down from numerous lawsuits by dissatisfied Countesses.

- May Day celebrations spread to the Americas, and remained a steady part of American holiday tradition. Some parts of the United States adopted the custom of weaving baskets and placing them outside the door filled with candy. If anyone still does this, please contact me and send the candy-filled basket as proof.

- In the last century, May Day is also celebrated as "International Workers Day", associated with the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago. In 1889 the congress of the Second International in Paris called for a demonstration to commemorate the Chicago riots. Since then, May Day was been sort of a focal point for labor demonstrations as well as various worker's riots. Although there may not be a lot of prancing going on, they certainly get points for enthusiasm.

- The distress call "Mayday" comes from the french word "m'aider". It was chosen by Fred Mockford in 1923 when asked to think of a distress signal. Incidentally, it has absolutely nothing to do with May 1st (but spawned a cool nickname for Grace Jones' James Bond character).

- In Hawaii, May Day is also known as "Lei Day." In 1928 Don Blanding suggested creating a holiday for the Hawaiian custom of wearing Lei. Since then, Lei Day has been a major celebration of Hawaiian culture.

- Common May Day celebrations today include the traditional as well as the new. Parades, pageants, and public dances have translated the ancient traditions into modern terms. At the high school May Day dances, kids may not get their "groove on" in exactly the same way, but in essence they are following a tradition many hundreds of years old. This is fun information to share with students, and is sure to get an enthusiastic response of "Like, whatever."

Today May Day is a major holiday throughout the world. Although not vastly celebrated in the United States, elements such as May dances and general celebrations have manifested into our common culture. Whether you wash your face in the dew, dance around your co-workers in a loin cloth, or erect a giant pole in your front lawn, try joining the celebration this year - I promise the Puritans can no longer throw you in jail. Well...