On May Day we boys used to gather straggly bouquets of delicate spring violets of heart-breaking butterfly blue for our one-and-only best gals - our moms. Giggling slender Shoshone girls at our tumbleweed-terraced reservation school danced around the Maypole trailing bright crepe-paper streamers, a 5,000-year-old Celtic tradition sitting quite nicely in the land of the mystical Sun Dance.
In this crabby age of "tyranny with manners," as the late Charlton Heston called political correctness, I don't suppose many schools indulge in the day-long festivals of foot races, somersaults and iridescent Kool-Aid that marked the true start of spring in the mountains. But if ever a tradition deserved revival, ancient May Day with its bubbling sense of fun and earthy reverence for nature ought to be put back into our calendar lineup.
Twentieth-century Communism had countless flaws, not the least of which was its stultifying lack of humor.What fun for entire communities to bask in the first fine warmth as earth is reborn. Totalitarian military parades on May 1 probably did as much as anything to make suspect May Day celebrations of any kind. Lightness of spirit wasn't ever a strong suit of our own Cold War warriors either, and they ill-understood that shunning May Day fun only made matters worse. Laughter has ever been the pure storm that spoils the self-importance of pig-headed ninnies. (In any event, May Day as a holiday for the workers of the world was an American invention, not a Soviet one. It started in Chicago in 1867 to mark passage of hard-won eight-hour work day legislation.)
Like many Celtic traditions, May Day survived longest in the modern world in Britain and Ireland, the last strongholds of the Celts in face of successive waves of invaders that transformed the culture and ethnicity of Europe starting in about 500 BC.
Looking, therefore, across the Atlantic for reminders of what we might try to revive here on our own wave-washed shore, Brian Day's A Chronicle of Folk Customs provides a good sense of the overall flavor of the event.
"The advent of the merry month of May was a time of great celebration, when summer was welcomed by men blowing on cow-horns. Girls rose early to bathe their faces in the May morning dew, which was held to have curative and beauty properties. Blankets soaked in May dew were thought to be able to cure sick children wrapped in them. Wells were able to grant wishes on May Day. ... (But) Fairies are abroad today so don't leave your baby unattended lest it be kidnapped and replaced by a changeling."
T.C. Croker's Fairy Legends of South Ireland recounts that "May-eve is considered a time of peculiar danger. The 'good people' are supposed then to possess the power and inclination to do all sorts of mischief ... The 'evil eye' is then also deemed to have more than its usual vigilance and malignity."
Bringing in the May, or "going a'maying," was an all-night party for young and old alike. On the innocent end of the scale, children gathered garlands in the forests and fields with which they decorated family houses and garden gates. In the 19th century, this evolved into sort of a Halloween double-dipping scheme, in which kids paraded their garlands around the neighborhood, singing songs and collecting money.
The earlier R-rated version was a bit less wholesome. There's no doubt that the prevailing theme of the holiday was one of rollicking life and sexual license. It was this latter trait that so fired up English Puritans in 1644 that they ordered the destruction of all Maypoles. In 1583, a moral reformer observed that of "a hundred maides going to the wood over night, there have scarecely the thirde parte of them returned home againe undefiled." Belying Colonial America's staid image, Massachusetts Gov. William Bradford railed in 1628: "They allso set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days togeather, inviting the Indean women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking togither, (like so many fairies, or furies rather,) and worse practices."
Well! Being a boring old person now myself, I can't quite bring myself to advocate a return to multiday revelries in the woods that result in young women wearing fashionable "green gowns." The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore explains these are "a well-known metaphor for what girls received from lying in the grass with their lovers."
But neither can I resist the thought of what fun it would be for entire communities to go a'maying, basking in the first fine warmth as earth is reborn. A well-made May garland will result in a silver dollar for the first child who brings one to my door.
Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer.