Beltane or May Day

May 1 cross-quarter day, Earth festival, 2nd Fire festival

Image: May Day by Kate Greenaway

The first of May, or May Day, is the remnant of Beltane an ancient spring festival celebrating the fertility of nature. May is a sensual month. The world is alive and it is celebrating the fact.

May Day Customs

To a society whose prosperity depended so much on the weather and the changing of the seasons, the celebration of the First of May was as much a part of the calendar as Christmas and Easter, and its customs were a part of village life.

In the past it was customary for the young to go ‘a-Maying’, or get up with the dawn and go out into the fields to gather flowers and greenery or ‘gather the spring’ and bring it in to decorate the homes and villages in the belief that the vegetation spirits would bring in good fortune.

Girls and young women snuck out to bathe their faces in the morning dew to prolong their youth and beauty the year through as it was known, ‘The fair maid who, the First of May, Goes to the field at break of day. And washes in the dew from the hawthorn tree. Will ever after handsome be.’- Mother Goose rhyme.

“Both May Eve and May Day were traditionally a time of letting your hair down and getting a little crazy, of acting out your spring fever. But as early as 1240, the Bishop of Lincoln complained in writing that too many priests were also joining in the fun!” -Jennifer Cutting, American folklorist.

The Puritans tried to put an end to ‘going a-Maying’ sighting that afterward not one of the girls remained a virgin. “The practice was for a time discontinued during the Commonwealth, but about 1654 it was revived, to the disgust of the Puritans.” writes Henry Benjamin Wheatley, British author, editor, and indexer, 1899. And May Day celebrations continued complete with a May Pole dance and in many places a May Queen.

May Queen of New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada circa 1877

The ‘Queen of the May’ was chosen from the prettiest of the eligible young women. She was crowned with flowers and paraded around the village. By tradition she took no part in the games or dancing, but sat like a queen in a flower-decked chair to watch as the human replica of Flora.

Morris Dancers were a part of the celebrations, usually at the end of the day, when the feasting and dancing began in earnest. The dancers were always male and often dressed as animals. And every English village had its Maypole. The earliest were tall trees stripped of their branches, and one village would vie with the next to show who could produce the tallest. When the pole was danced, dancers held colorful ribbons that were fixed to the top of the top and became decoratively intertwined as they went around, then changed direction repeating the steps in reverse.

Image: May Day at Central Park 1901 Maurice Prendergast.

I spent my early childhood in a small farming community and up until the mid 70's children made May Day baskets in school and left them secretly for a friend fo find. Read more on May Day Baskets here

May Day is a Faery Day

On Beltane we honor the spirits of Nature for at this time the veil between the worlds grows thin so that the trickster gods come out to revel and the faeries come out to play. On May Day eve and May Day chance encounters become more frequent. But be warned, not all faeries are friendly. Some have a propensity for mischief, seducing, distracting, sometimes throwing glamours to make things appear other than how they are, while others can be downright malicious so take caution.

Instead of trying to invoke a faery, leave an offering. Nature spirits love a dish of cream, a bit of milk and honey, fresh bread, or a tiny glass of wine. You offering should always be of the best quality, such as the first of the cream out of the carton, or the first or nicest loaf of bread made that day. A thimble of wine and a gift of a buckeye or a handful of acorns will gain faery favor, especially if the acorns were gathered under a full moon's light.

If a faery encounter is what you seek you might try going to a wild place and seeking out the oldest tree. Sit with your back to its truck and open your mind. You can also seek out a natural mound or a ring of mushrooms. Both are places known for faery activity indicating a gathering, or a place they frequent and may soon return to. There is an old saying, "Where oak and ash and thorn grow together one is likely to see Fairies." If you find a grove where these faery trees grow, sit quietly and meditate. Or if you find a stone with a natural hole through it, hold it up and peer through it and you might just see one of the folk, especially if you are on a beach, riverbank, or if it is dusk or dawn. Faery encounters are more apt at liminal times, at the equinoxes and the solstices, at sunrise or sunset.