About May Day: Memory, Myth, & Magical Merriment

Maurice Prendergast, May Day, Central Park, 1901
Cleveland Museum of Art

When I was a young girl, I lived on the lee side of a mountain, at the end of a long and winding tree covered, stone walled, long ago cracked in the pavement road. It was enchanting, and for six years I walked, and climbed, and dreamed through nearly every wood, meadow, stream, and hill that surrounded my little house. It was, for me, a discovery of something much larger than myself, something that connected everyone and everything much more profoundly than I realized at the time, and something that was as a healing balm in the midst of constant turmoil inside my home. In my dreams, I revisit an old maple tree, hundreds of years old, with roots and branches extending far beyond its grounded base, where I once lay on the lowest limb, looking up at a thousand points of flickering light, through the dripping leaves, while praying for God to hear my voice.

My father, a schoolteacher and principal, often spent time with my sister and I in all those surroundings, teaching us as about the many things that we saw, heard, and even smelled. Whether crafting kites from newspaper that we flew on a hillside, or traipsing through a field with a microscope to look at nearby pond water, learning all the names of the trees on a long walk home, and even looking at a night sky through a telescope; my dad made space for that precious time with us, teaching us to respect the land where we lived, and the gentle rhythms of the earth that balanced all of life. “God Is,” he would say, and warn us to add nothing to that notion. All through the many New England seasons, we were, at very young ages, trained up to appreciate the naturalist writers who drew our attention to such things. It was a treasured gift he gave, and one that I will always remember.

In the 1960’s, each year at our local grammar school, we students crafted hundreds of baskets from all manner of supplies, whether sticks, or paper, or cardboard, and we decorated them in brilliant colors. We learned to make flowers from tissue paper, pipe cleaners, paint, and ribbon. We filled our baskets with sweets from the penny candy shop, located in a room at the back of the old post office and market in the center of the village, and together with the flowers that we so eagerly constructed, our official May Day celebrations began. I remember a feeling of excitement that rolled through our classroom, like the clouds roll across a brilliant blue sky, in the warming spring air that meant we were half way to summer and the longest day of the year. It was intoxicating to bring the May Day basket home. It was even more wondrous, if a family member discovered and valued the effort, and not only the gift of it, but the purpose of it, as well.

Brasstown’s, Sticks in the Mud, Morris Dancers, @ http://folkschool.org

Later, in the 1970’s, as I grew to young adulthood, I attended my first Rites of Spring celebration on May Day. I watched as folks dressed in bright colors, painted their faces with hearts, stars, or rainbows, and danced around a blazing fire. Local venders sold baked goods, mead, hand crafted jewelry, baskets, and flowers at small stands that circled the perimeter of a clearing in the woods of a small nature preserve just near the town. Morris dancers shook their bells, ribbons trailing, drums beating into the center of the space and through the crowds, who stopped to clap and watch the carefully choreographed unison of sound and space. Great cheers arose when they paused and made way for the Maypole and then more dancers arrived and began to move in a breeze of winding ribbons, while weaving the web of community. It was a celebration that deeply connected, for me, all that I understood about my own spirituality, and which merged beautifully with my Episcopal Church heritage, which I never forgot.

Statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne by sculptor Bela Pratt (1867–1917), in Salem, Massachusetts, USA.

In a study of contradiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a required author in American Literature classrooms, added his 1835 story titled, “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” to his volume, Twice Told Tales, which speaks to both the festivities of May Day and the Puritan response toward all things seemingly outside the sturdy theological interpretations of 17th century Christianity; a favored theme in all of Hawthorne’s writing. So adverse was Hawthorne to his own ancestral witch hunt leaders, that he altered the family name from “Hathorne,” to “Hawthorne,” adding the discrete “w,” for both a new pronunciation and a new spelling. Interestingly, scholars have availed themselves to the psychology of such a haunting of misdeeds, as Hawthorne endured, since throughout his craft the common theme of innocents persecuted by Puritans is readily available. To his great shame, many, many innocent folk died by the determination of his forefathers. Interestingly, his statue resides in Salem, Massachusetts, near where many victims were sentenced to death, as accusers cried, “Witch!”

“The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” then, is both a celebration of joy and a caution of fear about May Day, as well as, a damnation of the early Governor of Massachusetts, John Endicott, one of the most ruthless, merciless, and intolerant Puritans of early New England. As the tale of “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” opens, readers encounter a scene much like that from a faerie story, “But May,” writes Hawthorne, “or her mirthful spirit, dwelt all the year round at Merry Mount, sporting with the Summer months, and revelling in the Autumn, and basking in the glow of Winter’s fireside. Through a world of toil and care, she flitted with a dreamlike smile, and came hither to find a home among the lightsome hearts of Merry Mount.” Could any meaningful location be more lovely, than Merry Mount? It could never last, however, as happiness depends so often on unhappiness to make itself known. And we, dear readers, can attest to this, just now.

17th Century Puritan leaders discover The May-Pole of Merry Mount. Getty Images

Hawthorne continues to write about the downfall of Merry Mount with all the horror of the an Eden at the hand of Satan, sparing no unimagined fate. In particular, he writes on the nature of the Puritans and their leaders, who deconstruct the once happy place, “Not far from Merry Mount was a settlement of Puritans, most dismal wretches, who said their prayers before daylight, and then wrought in the forest or the cornfield, till evening made it prayer time again. Their weapons were always at hand, to shoot down the straggling savage. When they met in conclave, it was never to keep up the old English mirth, but to hear sermons three hours long, or to proclaim bounties on the heads of wolves and the scalps of Indians. Their festivals were fast-days, and their chief pastime the singing of psalms. Woe to the youth or maiden, who did but dream of a dance!” Puritans, oddly enough, seemed ever to despise all such things that celebrated the Creator of the universe.

Such are the times in which we find ourselves, this May Day, 2020. The Earth, through all her lamentations of suffering the human race that ravages her very soul, has deemed that a virus would spread across the land to infect its inhabitants. Many have perished, many more are ill, and still more are becoming infected each day. We are not punished through restrictions by any who would deny us pleasure and joy, as Hawthorne’s Puritans once did, so menacingly. Rather, we are punished in our own miserable souls, through our own inability to heed the wisdom of healers, who instruct us to remain clear of one another, and to arm ourselves with proper coverings, with which to remain safe. We are foolish to join reckless leaders of commerce and industry, who demand access to the resources of the marketplace in favor of profit. We are wise, however, to heed to the rhythms of the earth, and the call of community leaders, who mandate that we put others before ourselves.

May Day, today, the First Day of May, 2020, might be a celebration of many things, including the old English pagan traditions of Beltane. Of sunshine, of flowers, of music, of stars, of feasts, of baskets, of songs, of dance, of the Earth, and of all her community — together while apart — through joy, and love, and kindness, and gratitude, for the splendor of the beauty just outside our door, bursting with the announcement that Spring has taken up full residence among all the precious meadows, the streams, the woods, and the hills throughout our beautiful New England. Create Whimsy, and employ all Wit in abundance, but do, please heed Wisdom. Whether we be in city or country, we can all partake in the wonder of the seasons, as we respect the instruction of civic leaders, not to abandon our celebrations, but to conduct them with a consciousness that respects the sacred lives of others, near and far, who deserve every chance to live for still other May Days in the many years ahead.

About May Day: Memory, Myth, and Magical Merriment, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020.

Wise Women, such as Midwives, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Healers, Philosophers, Herbalists, and Storytellers were once persecuted, as Witches,” from Wise Welsh Witch.

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