May Day Ain’t What It Used to be

“Spring (May) is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!'”
― Robin Williams

I was informed of a lengthy list of Spring activities happening this weekend. The weekend that includes Sunday’s May 1st… May Day. Thank you “Your Friend Four”, the local news station and their morning anchor for filling me in.

There was not one mention of a May Day celebration or a May Pole. Where has May Day gone? A victim of the Christian Sunday or Christian persecution due to its pagan roots?

If I Google May Day I get celebrations of workers, branded Anarchist, Communist or Socialist by my right leaning friends. If I Google May Pole, I find images of scantily clad ladies hanging from a stripper pole. I wish I were that limber.

There is much to do around the foothills of the Blue Ridge this weekend, but the closest you get to the “spirit” of May Day is the “euphoria Spring Fest presented by Lexus.” When I clicked on their link, the Spring Fest was more about food than the celebration of Spring. It is also a chance to dance around a new Lexus rather than a May Pole, I guess.

I did find one May Day celebration. May Day Faerie Festival at Marshy Point. All Right!!! Now we’re cookin’ with gas…in Maryland you say? Oops.

There was a time. Girls in ethereal, white dresses and flowers woven in their hair, mocking wood nymphs or Spring witches while dancing around a “May Pole”. A bonfire might have been involved. May Day had a decidedly pagan feel to it with good reason. In a time long ago, I celebrated even though as a child I knew not what we were celebrating.

Charles Amable Lenoir – A Nymph In The Forest

The child in me remembers a May Day celebration held in my school’s gymnasium. I was forced to participate by my fifth-grade teacher or our music teacher. I forget which. I suspect they were in cahoots.

Little boys in their school clothes, too long blue jeans rolled up over sneakers, were matched with female classmates dressed in colorful little girl dresses. We were forced to dance, skipping through an arbor covered in fake vines and around the gym floor. The only upside was I was matched with the fifth-grade love of my life that was never to be. How could it have been? Every time I tried to speak to her, I stuttered. I remember choking back a sick feeling, fearing I might throw up as we touched hands.

Later, I went to a fine Southern institution of higher learning associated with the Lutheran Church. May Day and Lutheranism had Germanic roots so it is inevitable we would celebrate May Day. The area my college was founded in was named the “Dutch Fork”. Dutch was a mispronunciation of German in their own language, “Deutsch”.

German immigrants settled in the area between the Saluda and Broad Rivers of South Carolina in the mid-1700s when incentives were offered to European Protestants to go forth and multiply while growing crops in the fertile river bottoms. Unlike the Pennsylvania Dutch, German culture beyond family names and Lutheran Churches has not survived…including, I guess, May Day.

A delivery of a Mayday basket of flowers to First Lady Grace Cooledge in 1927 – Library of Congress

We had a fine celebration at the college. A concert provided by the college band and jazz ensemble along with the choir. Baskets of spring flowers, treats, a Germanic blond coed named as the May Queen…purely a popularity contest…and she was quite popular. There might have been fruit punch laced with alcohol by one of our less than upstanding young men.

We Southerners do love a good celebration complete with a beauty contest and spiked fruit punch. These were the early Seventies, and it seems now like it might have been medieval times. Of course, we had the mandatory May Pole dance with coeds winding streamers around a tall pole anchored in the center of quad…until our Dean of Women got involved. She deemed our liberal arts education as too liberal as it related to certain fertility rites.

Part of a traditional German May Day Celebration-Erster Mai

There are competing theories about the origins of the May Day celebration. The symbolism of the maypole has been debated by folklorists with no definitive answer arriving. Some scholars classify maypoles as symbols of the world axis, others believe maypoles were erected as trees covered with garland and a sign that the happy season of warmth and comfort had returned. These were celebrated by towns people with substantial amounts of food and drink…and bonfires.

Erecting the May Pole – Double entendre? pinterest.com

The fact that these celebrations were found primarily in areas of Germanic Europe has led to the speculation that the maypoles were in some way a relic of a Germanic pagan tradition. I ascribe to this speculation.

A more recent speculation involves the belief that the May Pole represented a phallic symbol and young ladies dancing around it, a symbol of…well, I’ll let you use your imagination. I raise my red Solo cup filled with spiked punch and toast to a fertile Spring.

Our Dean of Women used her imagination when she learned of this, and it did not bode well for the May Pole dance specifically and the May Day celebration in general. She didn’t much like the annual “panty raid” either.

She was the prudish female who proved the stereotype. An older, unmarried woman, small in stature but who had a look and tongue that could cut you off at your knees. I was never comfortable in her presence at all and hoped I would never run afoul of the acid dripping from her tongue. Her influence was legendary and at her insistence May Day celebrations ended.

Supposedly…and, like the origins of May Day, this is up for debate…her comment to our college President included the statement, “If we are going to have young ladies dance around a pole, young men should dance around a hole in the ground.” Legend or rumor? I do not know.

There is something about a good pagan festival… if the animal sacrificed is a pig, slow cooked over hardwood coals. Good clean fun until it isn’t when the barbarians run off with the women folk. Food, drink, a bonfire. My last bonfire with a group of barbarians was several years ago. We were celebrating life and it was early May. It may well have been pagan.

Instead of young nymphs, older folks used clear, unaged alcohol and herbal remedies to relive those earlier days of our youth. Instead of dancing around a May Pole we moved slowly to Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin with a little Jerry Butler to mellow things out. The only real difference between then and now was we all left the bonfire about the time we once got going full tilt in those thrilling days of yesteryear.

Have a happy first day of May.

Don Miller’s writings may be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR363X9GP0lfBwVyIKKbwNaXeetnwVkmkqDyMNODvmLaMOHeqg8KCystRMo

Intersecting Easter

“In the oddity or maybe the miracle of life, the roots of something new frequently lie in the decaying husks of something old.”
― Craig D. Lounsbrough

As I finished my walk with my best friend the conversation turned toward religion, as it often does. It continued while we drank our morning coffee at a local cafe. For some reason he thinks I’m more versed in this area than I really am. Less versed but our conversation got me thinking. Always an uncertain condition for me.

One of my thoughts was how the conservative, Evangelical Southern Baptist and the liberal, raised Methodist, and Dudeist continue to find common ground. Tis a shame some of our other brothers and sisters in faith can’t find the common ground. All it takes is a little work on both our parts. For clarification I am the liberal, he the conservative.

Later my thinking took me down a pig trail and the mental gymnastics I attempt to avoid. Coming to grips with my own beliefs…or lack thereof. A day of thinking turned into my own form of comedic relief. I realize it may only be funny to me.

April is a month in which the three major monotheistic religions and pagans celebrate important somethings and I found myself doing a bit of research. I am no longer as less versed as I was three mornings ago, but a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.

Today, as I share this, is the Christian Easter, the most important celebration on the Christian calendar that proclaims Christ’s victory over death and the forgiveness of our sins as we are washed in the blood of Christ. As a child, being washed in the blood of Christ was a bit scary as were many of the stories told to me from the Bible. I still find myself more literal than I should be.

Besides celebrating the resurrection of Christ, we have expanded our celebration to include Easter hams, hot cross buns, new clothes, chocolate bunnies, dyed eggs, and rainbow-colored chicks along with Passion Plays, Easter Masses and Communions. There seems to be a tie in with the Christian Easter and ancient pagan spring festivals celebrating fertility and rebirth. (More on that later)

In accordance with Christ’s teachings, this connection to pagan festivals is perfectly fine with me. Resurrection is a form of rebirth and there are fertile fields of pseudo believers, nonbelievers, and those who have slid back waiting to be harvested. I know, for I am one.

Connected to Easter, Biblically and by the calendar, is the Jewish celebration of Passover, the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, which occurs on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the first month of Aviv, or spring. To translate that into English for non-Jews, Passover is celebrated from April 15 through April 23. In Western Christianity, Easter Sunday must always follow the first full moon after the spring equinox which means Easter is celebrated near Passover. In the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it is a bit more complicated because it involves a different calendar but sometimes, they even coincide.

During the time of The Passover, according to the Book of Exodus, God commands Moses to tell the Israelites to mark their homes with lamb’s or goat’s blood so that the Angel of Death will pass over them. This was the tenth plague placed upon Egypt for keeping the Israelites in bondage. The plague – the deaths of all first-born males except for those protected by the blood.

After the death of all firstborns, the Pharaoh orders the Israelites to leave, taking whatever, they want, and asks Moses to bless him in the name of the Lord. The Passover sacrifice of a lamb or goat recalls the time when the LORD “passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt”.

After ten plagues I understand why the Pharaoh might have been happy for the Israelites to leave but he backtracked some seven days later sending his chariots after them and setting up another miracle, The Parting of the Red Sea.

April is also the month of Ramadan for those who practice the religion of Islam. The Islamic holiday of Ramadan began on April 2 and lasts through the month of April. It’s centered around fasting, self-reflection, and prayer, and serves as one of the Five Pillars of Islam central to the religion.

During this month, Muslims can eat before sunrise – a meal called suhoor – and after sunset. The evening meal is called iftar. The month ends with a celebratory feasting holiday, Eid al-Fitr.

Unlike Easter and Passover, the origin of Ramadan is not surrounded by “blood”…that will come later. According to Muslim traditions, in a cave on a mountain, Muhammad was visited by the Angel Gabriel and was told he was a “Messenger” or “Prophet of God”. This was confirmed to Muhammad by a Christian relative Muhammad discussed it with.

Shortly after, Muhammad began to receive further revelations from Gabriel, as well as from the realizations of his own heart. According to hadith, the stories about Muhammad’s life, all holy scriptures were sent down during Ramadan, making these thirty days the holiest in the Muslim religion.

Along with the monotheistic religions I must shout out to my pagan friends too. I know I have one. They are involved in this intersection too and seem to be a fun group. Their calendar was based off the lunar cycles and equinoxes and solstices were important, none more so than the Spring Equinox. I know their lives were hard, but they certainly knew how to throw a celebration. Their Spring festival to the Goddess Oestara or Eostre or Biblically “Ishtar” being just one.

Their Spring celebration is the origin of the Easter Bunny and the Easter Egg except for the pagans it was the ‘moon hare’ that laid the ‘Cosmic Egg’ from which emerged all life. It is a short leap to chocolate bunnies and dyed eggs. The ‘hare of Eostre’ became the ‘Easter Bunny’ and the ‘Cosmic Egg’ became the Easter egg. It is thought that the word Easter morphed from Eostre.

A statue of The Cosmic Egg

Further, in pagan time special cakes were baked as sacrificial offerings to the moon goddess and were marked with an equal-armed cross to divide the cake into four quarters. These represented the four lunar quarters. The cake was then broken up into pieces and buried at the nearest crossroads as an offering. Again, we have a short leap to the ‘hot cross buns’…with a slab of Easter ham resting between two halves. That too is of pagan origins.

Biblically, Ishtar, both the mother and wife of Nimrod, a grandson of Noah, became pregnant and bore a son named Tammuz claiming he was the product of a sunray, which caused her to conceive. But Tammuz grew to be a hunter and was later killed by a wild pig. Ishtar, who claimed Nimrod had not died but became the god, Baal. She designated a forty-day period (the source of Lent?) to mark the anniversary of Tammuz’s death.

During this time, no meat was to be eaten. Every year, on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, a celebration was made. Ishtar also proclaimed that because a pig killed Tammuz, that a pig must be eaten on that Sunday, preferably in a hot cross bun. I added the bun part.

Enough research and intersection. I hope however you celebrate Easter it is a wonderful experience. I am going to have a ham biscuit.

Thanks to Laura Dye for suggesting the site: Folklore, Customs, Legends and Mythology. It was helpful and the basis of my research on pagan celebrations. I might have even copied a bit.

Google supplied the Bunny Rabbit image although it looks just like the semi-tame bunny who lives in my back yard.

Don Miller’s latest release is a nonfiction group of stories and essays named “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes, More Musings From a Mad Southerner.” The book may be purchased in paperback or downloaded at https://www.amazon.com/Pig-Trails-Rabbit-Holes-Southerner/dp/B09GQSNYL2/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=