Long, long ago, in a land far away, there was a time when villagers celebrated the apex of spring with festivities that included flowers, dancing, merriment and fire. It was a celebration of the triumph of light over dark and the blossoming of the earth. And, yes, it was about fertility. The ancient practitioners of the pagan precursor to May Day did not blush quite so easily as their eventual Puritan descendants.
Back then, the ancient celebratory rite heralding the coming of summer was known as Beltane, practiced by the Celts of the British Isles each May 1. Considered one of the most important days of the year, the pagans’ fire ceremonies offered a symbolic return to the light half of the year and celebrants seized the occasion to leap over the fire or walk around it with their farm animals as a way to call in luck and fertility for the coming summer.
Needless to say, these days you won’t find too many people leaping over an open bonfire or eating ritual oatcakes on the evening preceding May 1. The ancient religious traditions of Beltane eventually transformed into the more secular May Day, which largely axed the emphasis on fires and fertility in favor of flowers and family fun, though vestiges from the old days peek through for those paying attention. The Maypole, for example, a tradition in which participants dance in a circle around a tall pole strung with ribbons and flowers, may represent, to the discerning eye, something of a nod to masculine fertility. Flowers, as a symbol, rather speak for themselves.
And yet, as the centuries have worn on, even the modern May Day traditions have trailed off, with fewer children making May baskets filled with flowers and candies to be delivered surreptitiously to neighbor’s stoops. Jeanne Stewart, youth programs specialist at the Wilkinson Public Library, recalled her mother teaching her and her four sisters to make May baskets from paper and pipe cleaners that they would later deliver to neighbors filled with candies, popcorn and spring blooms.
“We secretly delivered them by ringing the doorbells and running or hiding in the bushes before we got caught,” Stewart recalled. “Otherwise, the neighbors were to give us a kiss.”
The girls never got caught, to their relief, but the tradition served as a friendly gesture to neighbors and a welcoming back of the sun after the long, gray cold of a Minnesota winter.
The tradition of leaving a basket of flowers or sweets hanging from a doorknob before dashing away had roots in some communities in a more romantic sentiment, in which the smitten boy or girl would leave the May basket on the door of their beloved. If the recipient discovered the basket before the suitor’s departure, he or she would give chase in hopes of obtaining a kiss.
While modern rituals of courtship and friendship have largely seen May Day traditions fall by the wayside, it’s not too late to bring back some of the festive fellowship of the ancient holiday. Lighting a bonfire or a campfire is a good place to start, a throwback to those Celtic traditions dating back more than two millennia. Flower crowns have also long been popular staples of May Day festivities. If daisies, dandelions or other spring blooms can be found, fashion a spring crown for yourself or a loved one. And if you really want to tap into the spirit of neighborly camaraderie, bake some cookies, buy some candies or gather some flowers, and take them to a neighbor’s doorstep as a token of your May Day joie de vivre.
Sure, there may be snow on the ground, or at least nearby, but that’s May in Colorado. Things were no different on May Day in 1865, when a Sunday school publication from Central City west of Denver proclaimed, “Bright happy memories come on this bright morning ― sunlight and flowers in other countries! This came near being a May-day of sleigh rides, but the sun did its work in time. Snow is gone and flowers are coming!”