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 like old-fashioned traditions,and the way they often make us slow down and smell the flowers… sometimes literally. Today is May Day, or Pentecost, when in days of old townspeople might have raised a Maypole and celebrated by decorating it, dancing around it (and of course eating and drinking!) Maypole traditions are said to represent perhaps a sort of pagan worship celebrating Mother Nature and even procreation. In some cultures girls and boys would dance around the pole in opposite directions with ribbons, making an intricate design, supposedly a dance of love. Spring does seem to be a lustful season, after all.
The tradition with which I became endeared was a French one, from my year of living in Nancy. Dating back to 1561 when King Charles IX received a bouquet of Lilies of the Valley as a gift on May 1, this gentle offering has become a country-wide pastime. Families and friends head to the forest early in the morning to pick flowers. When I was in Nancy, I saw roadside stands with little bouquets at the ready, tied with lovely little ribbons. They are given to loved ones, or even to friends and family, as a sign of affection. My mom and I remember this tradition most affectionately, sending greetings to each other wherever we are in the world. She once pestered a number of florists in the Okanagan to find some Lilies of the Valley to send me at my office! I planted some in my garden so I can take a picture every year. This year they have even managed to bloom as of today 🙂
May 1 is now also called Labour Day in France, and much of Europe, and it celebrates workers’ rights. I think that follows along nicely; it’s a good thing to show affection for someone’s hard work.
So, Happy May Day! Here’s hoping someone makes you smile today, and that you have time to smell the flowers.
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.