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The many paradoxes of May Day

"A time of betwixt and between, a night the veil between the worlds thinned and witches were at their most powerful." Gather Victoria

Today is May 1st - May Day. It's also a Monday - Moon Day. The beginning of a new week as well as a new month - and in Celtic terms the beginning of the light half of the year. For the Celtics divided the year into two - the dark and the light - whose beginnings were celebrated at Beltane (May Day) and Samhain - which nowadays equates to Halloween. They both involve bonfires. Beltane which means 'bright or brilliant fire" is named after the pagan god Bel - god of light, fire, and healing.

I think I've probably done May Day before but hopefully this will be a slightly different approach, and anyway you - and I - have forgotten what I wrote before. And I won't forget food. How could I? Every festival in the world has food associated with it in some way. Although, somewhat surprisingly this one doesn't really have a lot of food associations. However, I'm going to try and structure this - yes actually structure rather than ramble - around the paradoxes of May Day.

Paradox 1. This is Australia and it's Autumn, not Spring, so none of the traditions fit. Or do they? What about bonfires? I took these two photos recently - when we could first have bonfires again - perhaps they evoke that in-between feeling, the veil between the worlds, but it's an old man (should I say mature?) tending the fire, so much more in tune with Autumn - which also is celebrated with fires.

So bonfires

The bonfires of Beltane however, were all about fertility. Young couples jumped over them to increase their fertility, and cattle were driven through them in an attempt at ensuring a good year ahead. Lots of milk and so on. One hopes the fires were not too large to jump over, and surely they didn't actually drive the cattle through the fire? The embers maybe, or perhaps, as the painting shows - between two fires. The cattle would have been far too valuable to risk killing by driving through a fire. Although maybe one was sacrificed.

Indeed there is apparently one ancient and somewhat alarming custom described by Joseph Campbell in The Golden Bough:

"Towards the close of the entertainment, the person who officiated as master of the feast produced a large cake baked with eggs and scalloped round the edge, called am bonnach bea-tine—i.e., the Beltane cake. It was divided into a number of pieces, and distributed in great form to the company. There was one particular piece which whoever [got it] was called cailleach beal-tine—i.e., the Beltane carline, a term of great reproach. Upon his being known, part of the company laid hold of him and made a show of putting him into the fire; but the majority interposing, he was rescued. And in some places they laid him flat on the ground, making as if they would quarter him. Afterwards, he was pelted with egg-shells, and retained the odious appellation during the whole year. And while the feast was fresh in people’s memory, they affected to speak of the cailleach beal-tine as dead."

You'd have to wonder, whether way, way back there was an actual human sacrifice here. After all if you want something good from the gods - in this case, children and new piglets, calves and lambs then you have to give the gods something good in return. Maybe that was the May Queen's purpose. Although I have not found any reference to human sacrifice. Anyway here we have our first reference to food - Beltane cake. No longer a custom I have to say. But I looked and found two different ones.

I don't think anyone really knows what kind of cake it was, other than the scalloped shape - and the fact that there was a piece of charcoal in the slice that the unfortunate got. So at least I guess you could say that the person who got it was just unlucky, not generally considered as unworthy in any way. This one is from a website called Notes from a Messy Kitchen and it is the only one I found that had anything like a scalloped edge. Most of them seemed to be bundt cakes, but the recipes varied - spicy, alcoholic, honey perhaps seemed to be commonalities.

Then there was this one which is really a Walpurgis Night cake. It's called Maibowle cream cake and is from Danielle Prohom Olson on her website Gather Victoria. Walpurgis Night, which is celebrated on April 30th is the German version of Beltane. It was named Walpurgis Night later on by the church who disapproved of all this pagan romping around. They named it after a German saint - Walburga - an Abbess who was canonised on May 1st. The cake is made from Maibowle wine which features the flower shown here - woodruff:

"Said to bestow, prosperity, and wealth and “make the heart merry” sweet woodruff's enchanting scent of fresh hay, flowers, cream, vanilla, and almonds was (and still is) the starring ingredient in May Wine or Maibowle – a sweet and fruity wine punch popular with May Day revelers." Danielle Prohom Olson/Gather Victoria

All of that said, the paradox is that here in Australia, it really isn't a time of new birth of any kind is it? Also not true of course because there's always some kind of food coming into season (and babies being born). Here in Australia the new food is pumpkin and cauliflower, apples and pears, zucchini and potatoes according to Coles - although bananas seem to be more bountiful at the moment as well. And maybe because it's dark and cold there is indeed a bit more procreation going on. I remember many years ago now, there was a massive blackout in New York with a resulting baby boom nine months later.

Bonfires and oat cakes - or bannocks

The bonfire was obviously the main attraction of the whole event. It probably kept the witches away as well as encouraging all that procreation. Those bonfires were kept burning all through the night. Oat cakes, and the particularly Scottish form of oat cakes - bannocks - were cooked on the fire, and then pieces were torn off and thrown into the fire. I'm not sure what the symbolism is here, but they are a kind of flatbread, or small cake, made, back then of oats and barley. Another offering to the gods I suppose.

Felicity Cloake will show you how to make them - or rather a modern version that mostly uses wheat flour, because as one of her sources - James Morton - says:

"until relatively recently, they would have been made with “whichever sorts of flour people could get their hands on”, but “nowadays, refined wheat flour is the primary ingredient of choice, because it’s the best. Honestly.”

Up in Scotland they still do Beltane in style. Down in England they mostly do, as one writer said - the three M's - maypoles, morris dancers and may queens

So Maypoles

Well obviously phallic and apparently the higher the maypole the greater the fertility prospects. The maypole also connects the earth and sky.

When I was in primary school we had May Day maypole dancing, but we rehearsed for weeks, because it's really not that easy. We only ever did the simplest pattern by going under and over - half the dancers go one way round and the other half go the other way and you go in and out of each other, thus making the pattern at the top of the pole, as the strands of ribbon became shorter and shorter. But somebody always stuffed it up and then you had to untangle it all and start again.

There are much more complicated patterns though, but it was such fun. And flowers - there were always flowers on top of the pole. Another symbol of fertility of course. The Maypole is masculine.

May baskets are female - baskets filled with flowers and food left on doorsteps. Maybe the men left the baskets on the doorsteps of their sweethearts. I don't know, and I don't really remember May baskets. Eggs don't seem to be a thing though. Which is a tiny bit odd considering what Beltane seems to be all about. Sex basically.

The May queen

Although it should be said that purity is also a thing - in the form of the May Queen who led the procession that was often a feature of the celebrations. "She stands for purity, strength, fertility and potential for growth" which I guess is why she is often a child.

Interestingly, Melbourne sort of does this too with the Moomba king and queen, although - in line with Paradox no. 1 that it is Australia - Moomba is in autumn. It's also not May as Moomba takes place in March. But Moomba is indeed a fun time - a sort of time to be silly in many ways.

Paradox 2 - well not strictly anything to do with May Day but definitely associated with Moomba. It's also the time that the Gay community celebrates - in high style. The Gay community, by its very nature cannot really have anything to do with fertility. It's the very opposite really. And I suppose I'm cheating a bit because the Gay celebrations are really associated more with Mardi Gras I think.

May Day is celebrated all over the world in various ways, with lots of different kinds of foods. These are Finnish fritters. I don't know what else there is, but the European ones anyway, often seem to feature honey.

Paradox 3

May Day also has a completely different significance today - a celebration of worker's rights which has also morphed into a celebration of Communist governments' strength and power. It's an opportunity to do a bit of male chest thumping and show the world how much strength and power you have. In some ways I suppose this is completely in line with the notion of male fertility in the worst sense, but really it's the complete opposite. I mean all those weapons are likely to destroy not create.

However, May Day in the socialist sense began with a massive strike in the USA on May 1st 1886. The workers were demanding an 8 hour day. A little later the International Socialist Movement declared it as a kind of Labour Day celebrating the workers of the world. Workers of the World unite and all that. And indeed in Queensland today it is Labour Day, but all the states go their own way on this one. Here in Victoria it's the second Monday in March.

Paradox 4

I admit this is a bit of a long bow, but I didn't want to leave May without mentioning the Mayfly.

Back in 2020 in another fit of boredom I designed myself a desk diary which I never got printed. This is one of the pages I created at the beginning of the month of May. It was preceded by a page with this quote on it:

“The lifetime of a human being is measured by decades, the lifetime of the Sun is a hundred million times longer. Compared to a star, we are like mayflies, fleeting ephemeral creatures who live out their lives in the course of a single day.” Carl Sagan

And that was reinforced by that quote above the picture of the mayfly. It's the very opposite of fertility in a way, and yet not - after all in that one day the mayfly mates and creates new life.

And here I come to a conclusion and sort of full circle. For this year May 1st falls on a Monday - Moon Day. I imagine the moon had some kind of significance in all this. The tides which it controls are associated in some way with fertility I think.

We had a rather spectacular solar eclipse here recently - well over in WA - yes a solar eclipse but courtesy of the moon.

May Day is halfway time - halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Well not here - halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, but that's alright. In some ways it's a bonus.

As the days grow colder and shorter May Day might make us think of spring and new birth (well not the military lot). Statistics just out show that the birth rate is declining, just about everywhere. Another paradox. In so many ways this is a good thing. In others not. It will be 2050 though before the full significance of this plays out. I shan't be here. Gone like the mayfly.


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