Living in Season
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My Season: Not Smelling May Flowers
Its been hard to enjoy all the pleasures of the season with my senses impaired, my energy sapped and my brain dulled. Its even more painful because the weather has been glorious to match the explosion of blossom.
Meanwhile Ive been lying in bed with all the windows shut (for a while I thought I was becoming allergic to tree pollen), blowing my nose, coughing and drinking endless cups of tea. The only good thing about this is that Im reading about a book a day.
Blessings of the pleasures of May,
In good time,
Living in Season: Almost Lost Ceremonies of May
I remember with fondness the ceremonies at the start of May celebrated at my grade school, St. Bridget of Sweden in Van Nuys, California. The little girls wore their communion dresses and the boys looked splendid in their starched white shirts. We paraded out of the church, bringing the statue of Mary with us to be placed in a special outside grotto for the month of May. As we walked we sang: O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
The whole scene was full of unusual and sensual delights: the smell and color of flower petals scattered from little baskets and the outdoor procession through the sunshine. Even better, (Im sure we recognized although we could not have articulated this), it was all in honor of the Feminine. One of the girls was always chosen to be the Queen of May, and led the parade crowned with a garland of flowers. And, of course, this was all in honor of Mary, who seemed so much closer to us than God the judgmental Father or Jesus, the martyred hero. Mary was the Divine Mother, and we knew that we could count on her intercession, her compassion and her love.
With our white clothes, processions and songs, we were enacting a particularly 1950s Catholic version of rituals celebrated in Europe during the season of flowers and mating. Thanks to the association with Mary, we were preserving traditions that had almost vanished from the culture.
At one time, May Day ceremonies flourished across America, in schools and town exhibitions. A friend gave me a precious pamphlet written by Eleanor Lane Peabody called The Evolution of the English May Day which was presented before Her Majesty the Queene of the May at Wheaton College on May 17, 1924. It involved an all-women cast (Wheaton was a womens college from 1834 to 1988) performing a series of five episodes, songs, processions, spoken pieces and dances, including a May Pole dance.
You can see visual remnants of these ceremonies in the collection of postcards which Barbara Marlow Irwin began collecting since her birthday is May 1st:
And I loved reading an oral history account of a high school May Day ceremony as told by Kathy Reynolds to Eloise Herr (unfortunately she doesnt mention the year):
Although people always danced on May Day, what we now think of as a Maypole dance (the plaiting of ribbons around a pole) is fairly recent. It probably developed in the 18th or 19th century in the pleasure gardens of London, and was then adopted by country folk dancing around the Maypoles on village greens. The Victorian art critic William Ruskin popularized this custom in the 1890's when he was teaching at Whitelands Teachers Training College for Women.
Another May Day tradition that I remember vividly from my childhood was the custom of hanging a basket of flowers on the front door knob of a friends home, ringing the bell and running away to let them find and take in the fragrant gift. We made them out of construction paper circles, twirled into a cone, then stapled or glued, with a handle made of ribbon across the top.
This is another centuries old custom with many elaborations, for instance, giving flowers with significanceplum for the glum, thorns for the prickly and pear for the popular. When I began reviving May Day customs in my life, one of my first inspirations was to buy seed packets. I chose plants that symbolized qualities I hoped would enhance the lives of the recipients and left them on doorsteps with an attached label wishing them Happy May Day. I also sent homemade May Day cardsusually collages of pictures from flower catalogs and gardening magazines. Floral scented soaps and bubble bath would also be an appropriate modern May Day gift.
In the past few years, the gathering of flowers that are blooming on May Eve has become an important part of my ritual. I always make a tour of my neighborhood around midnight, skulking through the alleys with my shears in hand, snipping any stray lilacs or other fragrant blossoms I can find. I used to bring them home and fill my daughter's room with them so that when she woke up she was in a bower of flowers. Now we go together and then put the flowers into baskets to leave at the doors of friends and neighbors.
One year my daughter (inspired by a Martha Stewart suggestion) made beautiful little vases by twining heavy-duty floral wire around the rims of small glass jars to form handles. We filled the jars with water, then tucked in sprigs of a few small flowers (lily of the valley is the May Day flower in France) and hung them on the doorknobs of each unit in our apartment building. Heres a link to the article at Martha Stewarts website which shows how to make these.
What May Day customs do you remember from your childhood? And what customs have you developed to celebrate it today?
Links for May Day: Maypole Dances
A nice website compiled by Eliza Yetter. Ive highlighted her copy of instructions on Maypole dancing from a book published in 1907 and entitled How to Dance the Revived Ancient Dances by Ardern Holt. Eliza is creating a database of holiday information, including selections from old almanacs and songs from an 1888 compilation of songs about ale. I loved her idea for a modern May Day ritual, inspired by an Albanian spring custom, of bathing her kids in water suffused with violets and rubbing their skin with raw eggs for fertility/creativity.
This was the most specific information I found about special Maypole dances with names like Jacobs Ladder, Spiders Web, Barberpole. I publish directions for several of these in my May Day packet. Mine came from Baines; these are not attributed.
Another attempt to create a database but this one specifically for folk dances. I found this website through a link from wikipedia. It contains some interesting historical information (though none of it is credited to a source) and quite a bit of misinformation (the Maypole dance did not originate in Rome!) but I appreciate the impulse to create a comprehensive database.
Haikus are usually about a moment observed in nature, although nature can be extended to include the human environment. The Austrailian haijiki compiled by John Bird mentions a famous blues festival and surfers. The Alaskan haijiki compiled by Scott Perkins and Cindy Zacko refers to humpback whales returning and the first mosquitoes as well as the first Winnebago and the first cruise ship.
What Ive Been Reading: Novels for the Invalid
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke
A Good Year by Peter Mayle
Sideways by Rex Pickett; Sideways, the movie directed by Alexander Payne
New Slow Time Class Beginning May 1
Calendar Companion: Leaves from the Tree of Time
Every week for 52 weeks you will receive a brief email with a reflection on the qualities of the present time period and one suggestion, task or question that you can savor throughout the week.
Start whenever you like. When you order the Calendar Companion, you will receive the next week's calendar companion, along with an introductory email.
$20 for a year's worth of gentle reminders to help you stay aligned with natural rhythms. Click here to order, or to see a sample reflection.
Holiday Packet: May Day
The print version is $14; please allow 10 days for delivery. An email version is also available for $9. It will be sent to you as an attached Word file within 24 hours. Order at: Order here.
Signs of Summer