May Day… A Look at Its Origins And Its Meaning For Us Today
The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
Throughout the progression of humanity’s religious quest, there has been either a desired dialogue or a dubious denial of the importance of nature to our religious practices and spiritual imaginations.
On one side, there have been the mystics, poets, philosophers, and artists whose source of inspiration was drawn directly from the natural world. In response to the mystery and majesty of nature, its balance and its beauty, we are given invaluable lessons that we need to take seriously. In the natural world, they observed, there is a visceral wisdom that requires our awareness and our respect. The cycles of weather definitely have an effect on our sense of health and well being and will lead us to acknowledge that nature cannot be divorced from our humanity and therefore deserves an important or central place in our religious understanding and expressions of worship. The variegated petals that unfold to us form around the truth that Nature is a pathway to God- and this pathway is as wide as Pagan festivals to medieval mysticism, from the Native Americans to the Transcendentalists. What they all share, from the flowery verse of Hindu Vedas to Whitman’s earthy leaves of grass, they speak of nature with respectful and reverent tones.
The contrasting viewpoint is that nature is our adversary, that it is something that we, as humans, need to conquer and control for our personal benefit. It declares that nature exists for our social and personal use. If it cannot be overcome, then it had to be dominated or domesticated, tamed or controlled. Often, this outlook falls into two primary camps- the ascetic and the opportunistic. In the first way of dealing with nature, we are to deny any connection to it… That somehow the physical being is bad, that nature is cruel, and life in the body is a harsh ordeal.
This point of view was most vividly championed by the Victorian celibate priesthood and earlier, in this country, it was well represented in Puritan times by Yankee Protestantism with all of its puritanical codes and its capitalistic ambitions. Under this approach to nature, we are to use, to plunder, exploit and harness nature to fit or fuel our desires for progress and for profit. Only then or in that way, does nature have any value for us!
As I have outlined it, it is obvious where I stand… And even though it is not an objective comparison, it is one that operates clearly in our culture today. It is historically factual and its influence on theology has contributed greatly to how religion can be used to support environmental deregulation and it has contributed to the ecological and spiritual crisis we now face.
As this relates to May day, we gain our first appreciation of its origins from the Roman revels of Flora, the goddess of the flowers, and most likely an earlier Pagan celebration that they adopted. Historically, the people of Southern Europe or more temperate climates observed that Spring could easily begin in March. However, if you lived in Northern Europe, or in the Northeastern and upper Midwestern parts of our country, a good claim could be that Spring really doesn’t arrive until May 1st!
But May… Ah, May… Well, we can always hold good thoughts about the weather in the month of May… It is after the cold winds of winter and before the harsh heat of summer…
It is the month of Camelot… the merry month of May when we can celebrate our delight in the flowers and in all greening and growing things…
And so it is, that we derive our best source for the origins of May Day from Merry Old England… Of course!
Many of you already know something about the Celts and Druids. They were famous for many things that later became infused into our modern culture. Among the more curious and phenomenal were the ideas associated with nature spirits, leprechauns spirits, fairies and the like… But we also have the marvels of Stonehenge, and we have the vivid scenes from Shakespeare’s plays that are filled with nature, alchemy and symbolism such as MacBeth’s witches with all their toil and trouble!
More importantly to our spiritual quest, there has been a revival of deep and earnest interest in the divine feminine and in the ideas and practices associated with the worship of the goddess. The classic text, that is almost required reading for those interested in this feminine spiritual outlook would be Margot Adler’s Drawing Down The Moon. What is on major importance for us is that these practices, images and symbols were pre-Christian ( and from what I have observed in the Low Country, they are post Christian) and the central teaching is that we cannot live our lives apart from nature or without a central correspondence to nature as a source of wisdom and understanding. We cannot or should I say, we dare not live hermetically sealed off from nature in our condos and skyscrapers, or training out nature by being constantly plugged in our MP3 players and our smart phones!
In fact, there is now a new malady making its appearance among our youth- a deficit of Nature that keeps them alienated and out of touch with how nature teaches us to live. They are removed from healthy food, exercise, exploration of the natural world, and are living in a largely artificial way! While technology can certainly be useful, it needs to serve our aesthetic and compassionate values, not create them!
The major obstacle to a more full and joyous celebration of earth based holidays such as May Day, Midsummer’s, Equinox, even Halloween,
comes from the suspicion associated with them being carnal, being visceral, being joyous… or in short, not being Christian, and therefore evil!
Furthermore, these revels associated with May poles, and bonfires might be demonic and could corrupt your orthodox and pious soul!
And yes, if these festivals are lived out as they are portrayed in Hollywood, they are certainly lascivious and “over the top” and could easily be seen as a corrupting influence on youth and society as a whole. However, most of these rituals and rites are respectful and celebrate the connection of our bodies with our souls, and that our lives are drawn from nature and to give thanks and to be exceedingly grateful that our existence depends on keeping a respectful balance and correspondence to the natural cycles and rhythms of the year…
Another objection to celebrating May day and the earth festivals is simply because… Well, Pagans do it! What is a Pagan? Is it someone like Aristotle, Plato, or Marcus Aurelius- someone who does not believe in a Christian understanding of God? In short, the word pagan has been drastically abused and when it has been employed it is often derogatory and dismissive. Its Latin origins simply meant to be a country dweller in contrast to someone living in walled cities…
The truth is that religion has always taken the ways and rituals for worship from its environment or natural surroundings. If you live among the animals, amidst the trees then these living things can take on a symbolic expression and have a spiritually significant meaning for you. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed … Almost all the great religious leaders of humankind did not draw their most enduring teaching stories from life in the “concrete jungle”
The NT parables are filled with natural symbolism… Similarly, the Native Americans looked to animals, birds, and tress, as did the Celts.
However, when the Christian missionaries arrived in Northern Germany, France, and the moved into the British Isles, they were… Appalled to see such displays of joy and celebration! It was so licentious and it was accompanied with heathen drumming, flute playing, and dancing- Horror!
They saw it as their moral duty to root out this decay, and to train people to abandon their bodies in favor on their rational sensibilities…
In doing so, their aim was to break their spirit, and abolish their Myths and symbols. In other situations and circumstances, where the Myth and the cultural observances were deeply engrained, and the resistance was too great, they decided to “sanitize” their festivals and practices and gave them new, tame meanings… From those efforts we have the origins of the Christmas tree, the Easter egg, etc.
So all this review, brings me to May Day, a joyous Pagan Holiday!
Among the Celts and Druids, it was called Beltane, and it was celebrated as part of the wheel of life, one eighth that signals Summer’s impending arrival!
Of course, May day is the more tepid and tame version of Beltane…
Originally, Beltane was a holiday celebrating and encouraging fertility!
And the May Pole… well, its an upright symbol that it to be encircled by flowers. All who wished to be fructified, or to encourage their own fertility were encouraged to use this time to seed the soil or the awaiting wombs so that there would be a joyful harvest in the coming seasons! Young women would dance around the large trunk trunk/pole and offer signs and songs for fruitfulness- in any way you wished to desire it!
Other customs associated with May day were hobby horse riding, Morris dancing, and washing one’s body in the morning dew!
When I was preparing this topic, I purposely spent time in my home garden… While I am usually filled with the ideas of the tasks to be done, this time I stood, and walked mindfully through the rows… As it was, by the time and phase of the Moon, time to plant, I took some seeds and stooped over, make some rows with a hoe, and started to lay out what I hope would be an abundant summer harvest…
As I began the process, I became lost in thought… My mind flashed on how universal and timeless this act of seeding was! Most every year of my life has had a garden in it… Across the generations of my family life, up and
down the rows of humanity, people have planted… Humans have planted their seeds, their hopes and their desires for a million years, and I am but one of the recent ones and it is just my time in the unfolding centuries to take my place, make my effort to grow food for my life …
Suddenly, my reverie ended… And I stood up and was still … It was almost totally quiet …empty… Expectant…
Well, almost quiet until a defiant mockingbird decided to wake me up and bring me back to his particular form of celebration, his enthusiasm seemed to have no bounds! Yet, for a short precious while… I was one with the Chinese rice farmer, the Cherokee planting the early corn, my grandfather putting tomatoes deep into the soil…
Now I could begin to understand how the reverent Celt would have felt when he or she was confronted by the many mysteries of nature and how it enveloped life, and how deserving nature is of our care and dedication. It was a feeling that made me quietly content, serene, happy…
If this is a more enlightened form of what it means to be a Pagan… Then count me in! I am a Pagan, too!
Whether our concern is for ecological integrity or personal peace, try to take some time this May Day to offer someone a flower, a smile, some loving regard… Go for a walk, open up your senses to all the natural lessons, epiphanies and miracles there are to behold…
Take nature into your keeping, and place it near to your heart…
Amen; So Be It; Blessed Be….
A Prayer for May
From Julian of Norwich
There is a treasure in the earth.
Be a gardener. Dig a ditch. Toil and sweat.
Turn the earth upside down, and seek the deepness.
Continue in this labor, [then] take this food…
And carry it to God and to your neighbor as your true worship.
In God’s being is Nature; God is the true Father and Mother of Nature, and all are made to flow out of God to work the divine will.
Nature and God are in harmony with one another.
For Grace is God as Nature is God.
Neither Nature nor Grace works without the other.
Let us never forget our debts to both Nature and Grace.
Our Father/Mother/Spirit God;
You who are the Creator, Provider, Sustainer of Humanity and the Natural World, we offer our praise for the beauty of the earth, and all that is nature that surrounds us. We affirm that both Nature and Grace are our gifts from the Creation, and that we are to be the willing and grateful stewards.
As we respect our bodies, we respect the animals and all that lives alongside of us and that shares this planet with us.
May we never act in arrogance, but always seek to live in balance,
in praise, and in peace. AMEN