"April showers bring May flowers," or at least that is how the saying goes. And really, very appropriate, if you consider how many May Day celebrations involve flowers!
It starts with Floralia, the Roman celebration honoring the goddess Flora. Flora was a goddess of, wait for it, flowers and her celebration ran from about April 27/28 to about May 3. It was a celebration of new life and flowers. The typical seven day festival came to also be connected to fertility, which seems to be a running theme on most May Day celebrations worldwide.
Take Bealtaine, for example. Bealtaine (byal-tinn-uh or bel-tinn-uh) is the Celtic fire festival celebrated on or around May 1. Mara Freeman, in her book, Kindling the Celtic Spirit: Ancient Traditions to Illumine Your Life Through the Seasons, describes Bealtaine as a time that we celebrate "life, growth, love and sexuality." The custom of "greenwood marriages", where couples would disappear into the woods on the eve of May Day only to return the next morning with flowers they collected, so disturbed some religious communities that they tried to ban them. Apparently, they did not like what Rudyard Kipling poetically described:
Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
The flower theme is seen repeatedly. According to Alexei Kondratiev, in his book, Celtic Rituals: An Authentic Guide to Ancient Celtic Spirituality, Bealtaine marked the change of the year from the dark half, which began at Samhain, into the light half. Kondratiev writes that one of the themes associated with the day is that of the Flower Maiden. A common Catholic tradition on this day involved crowning statues of the Virgin Mary with wreaths made of flowers.
Other customs associated with May Day are:
- Collecting dew in the early morning. It is believed the dew collected on this day will make the skin younger and more beautiful.
- Building a bonfire. Many couples would jump over the dying flames to assure fertility during the year. Pasture animals were also driven between two bonfires for the same reason.
- Making May boughs and flower wreaths to adorn the home.
- Decorating the May bush. A shrub, either planted near the front door or one placed in a pot, is decorated with flowers, ribbons, even eggshells left over from spring celebrations. Kind of like the warmer season version of decorating a Christmas tree.
- Dancing around a maypole. I remember doing this as a child at school and had the pleasure of doing it once again as an adult while on a women's retreat.
But beware! This day is also associated with the active presence of fairies, and precautions must be taken! If you must go out alone, be sure to carry upon your person a piece of iron in your pocket. In parts of Ireland, according to Kevin Danaher in this book, The Year in Ireland, it is recommended that one not "dig, whitewash, bathe or sail on May Day," the reason given that these activities "might seem to have a magical purpose and on the other a feeling that danger was to be avoided at a time when ill-luck or evil influence might prevail." It is best, then, to appease the capricious fairies by leaving out offerings. Better safe than sorry!
Besides the suggestions listed above, other ways to celebrate are to have your own celebration with music and dancing and plenty of good food. Select a May King and Queen and let them wear a crown for the day. Most importantly, have fun! But don't forget to leave something for the fairies and make sure the kids are in bed and asleep before you indulge in your own private form of flower gathering.