Today is May Day, a celebration in many parts of the world – some countries have made it a workers day, and others have it as a celebration of spring, an evolution of pagan festivals such as Beltane. I am always struck by nature’s timeline on this day, perhaps because I live in Canada where the winter weather likes to linger.
It seems this year I am leaning more to the other side of May Day’s meaning – I need help to get out of my winter funk. I was in the garden this morning with my fingers in the dirt and that was a good tonic but wearing two woolly layers and still having my gumboots dampened my mood, if you’ll pardon the pun. My Lilies of the Valley have come up, but are far from blooming yet this year, so there will be no real “Fête du Muguet” for me.
The naval term “mayday” was created in 1923 by a British radio operator who came up with an easily recognizable phrase (he was inspired by the French “m’aider”, meaning “help me”). It is repeated 3 times when calling for help, to make sure everyone hears it correctly. It seems to me that wouldn’t be too hard in disastrous situations; one has a tendency to shout and repeat things. When the clouds get low and the wind blows day after day I feel like I should run out in the yard and send out this call.
I suppose a better way to deal with our long winter is to engage in the celebration of moving forward, though. I flipped the calendar pages and I will be planting the last of my greenhouse seedlings today. I will bake a pound cake to signify the sweeter time of summer with sunshine and warmth. (Historically, this was when grazing animals were put out to pasture to feed on the wild grasses and flowers, making butter and milk richer and more flavourful.)
I’ve always wanted to dance under a Maypole, but that will take some more work. There is something romantic and wistful about maidens in flowing dresses dancing with ribbons barefoot in the grass. Maybe I’ll put together a fairy garden. No one will notice if I tiptoe out tonight to dance with the little ones and have my own Beltane ritual.
I wish I could say the Lilies of the Valley in my yard look this beautiful… I have the sunshine but the stems are just up, no blossoms yet. Still, I rejoice in their effort, their enthusiasm and when the blossoms arrive, the fragrance!
Lilies of the Valley are an ancient woodland flower, and have signified humility in religious works for centuries. Personally, they make me think of fairies and other magical things. It’s not surprising that they are a prized flower in a bride’s wedding bouquet – Grace Kelly had them when she became a Princess, and so did Kate Middleton when she became Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge.
May Day is a phrase used by sailors to signify distress, and sometimes with the hectic nature of spring I admit that rings true. But there is another history to this day… in much of the Northern Hemisphere the first day of May was long a holiday celebrating spring. This tradition goes back to Celtic traditions of Beltane, which sat opposite the first of November, heralding the start of the autumn. As such, it was a joyous pagan celebration involving dancing, flowers and cake. (what’s not to like about that?!)
May 1 also became International Workers’ Day in Europe – was this perhaps in connection with the Christian traditions overtaking pagan rituals and more of a work ethic entering the collective psyche? I wonder…
My memories of May Day come in part from stories my Mom told of wrapping ribbons around the Maypole as a girl (perhaps a bit pagan, but awfully romantic, don’t you think?). Then when I lived in France I learned that a tribute on this special day was to give “muguets”, Lily of the Valley. Their pungent fragrance is so typical of spring, sensual and full of life. They are dainty blossoms on sturdy stems, as if to say, “We may look delicate, but we have the strength to carry on through storms and wind until the sun prevails.”
So, on this beautiful day, where I am surrounded by sun and blooming flowers and fresh-cut grass and bouncing animals, I wish you a Happy May Day. Here’s to the sun prevailing.
This week we had Groundhog Day, that day made famous in pop culture by Bill Murray, when he lives February 2nd over and over again until he learns that he must make the most of what life has given him. I thought I would share the more historical interpretation, which has some similarities, but more complexity (and of course, some food elements as well).
As history tells it, the original name for Groundhog Day is Candlemas. It was a celebratory feast to commemorate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem, and included blessing the candles that would be used throughout the coming year (Jesus was seen as a symbol of light or revelation, so the connection with candles is certainly logical.) It was also known as the earliest of festivals celebrating the Virgin Mary. With the light stretching further through the day, it signifies the first leap to spring and in fact was considered by some to be the start of the spring season. (Here lies the connection to our current rodent-centric customs.) Significant things to remember about the more secular Candlemas traditions are that this is when any symbols of Christmas are to be removed (this formally ends the Christmas season, being 40 days later); and beginning a voyage at sea is not recommended on this day (sailors believed it would end in disaster). If you followed the tradition of Epiphany on January 6th that I spoke of in an earlier column, having won the figurine in the Three Kings Tart would mean you were beholden to host a party on Candlemas.
Being the point of transition between seasons, whether you consider religious seasons or nature’s seasons, our Groundhog Day has a noble history. When our favourite rodent in various North American cities peeks his nose out from his winter slumber, he offers an omen of the days to come, but it is based in some kind of logic, as traditions often are. Groundhogs aren’t scared of their shadows, and sailors aren’t scared to sail on a calendar date, but they know weather patterns. The same is true with foodie traditions that occur at festival time. If you missed these this year, you can look this column up again next year as inspiration. Or maybe you want to create your own festival to kick away those winter blues? There are some good ideas here:
In France, they celebrate by eating crepes, but only after 8 pm – are they waiting for the winter moon to rise, and the crepes symbolize the shape? If you can flip a crepe successfully while holding a coin in the other hand you will see prosperity in the coming year (of course you will – you just kept the coin, didn’t you?!)
In Spain, they celebrate by eating tamales, as the planting of the corn can begin as early as this. Even if you don’t want to be that elaborate in your cooking, a bit of cornbread or even a muffin could stand in as a nod for the tradition of farmers beginning their work of the season. (Do you even need another reason to stop at Timmies?)
In Ireland, they put a loaf of bread on the windowsill as an offering for St. Birgid, who is associated with both a pagan goddess of fertility and a saint in County Kildare. (Remember, it’s still a wee bit cold, so it’s okay to consume those carbohydrates, right?)
I hope these ideas lead to inspiration. If not, well, never fear. We have Mardi Gras coming up next, and that certainly deserves celebrating. Or I suppose, if you need immediate gratification and are sorry you missed the significant date for these offerings, you could just break open the snacks and enjoy the Superbowl on Sunday with some friends. Whatever works, cheers to you! Stay warm – the groundhog I listened to said we only have a little while longer to hold out!!