May Day

I find it sad that May Day isn’t really A Thing in the UK.  Even the early-in-the-month Bank Holiday is relegated to the first Monday of May, diluting its significance to that of merely a day off.

When we lived in France it was far more important.  It was a day off work of course, because it was the all important Fête du Travail. No shops (apart from bakers and neighbourhood shops, just for a few hours).  No garages. No newspapers.  Only essential workers turned up for duty.

But the streets were quite busy, because May 1st is the day when everyone offers one another a traditional token of friendship and esteem – a sprig or two of lily of the valley, prettily presented.  In every village, every town, you’ll find people on street corners, outside the bakers’, at the cross roads, selling the flowers that they probably spent the previous day gathering and tying into pretty posies.  It’s the one day of the year when anyone who wants to can sell on the streets without a licence – so long as they’re selling only lilies of the valley (muguets).

I used to ask people the origin of this tradition.  Nobody knew.  ‘It’s simply to offer bonheur’, they shrugged.  But my friend Léonce had a couple of stories to tell.  We all know that lilies of the valley have a strong and lovely perfume.  The nightingale notices and smells them coming into flower on the first day of May, and this gives him the energy he needs to get into the woods and begin courting, nest building, and singing.  And those bell shaped flowers?  Well, they apparently surround the Heavenly Gates, where they come in handy by tinkling musically to announce the arrival of another soul from earth.

Lilies of the Valley in our garden in France, one rainy May Day.

Just to prove though that at least one place in England celebrates May Day:  here are the choristers of Magdalen College Oxford greeting the day at 6.00 a.m. as they do every year on this date.  And the whole of Oxford joins in the fun.

Beltane at the ‘Stonehenge of the North’

The protective fire of Beltane.
The protective fire of Beltane.

Not much further than a mile from us as the crow flies, lies Thornborough Henge. It’s a prehistoric monument consisting of three giant circular earthworks. Constructed 5000 years ago by the first neolithic (new stone age) farmers, it was probably an enclosure for their ritual gatherings. The Henge became an important centre in Britain for pilgrimage and trade, although its exact purpose still remains a mystery.

It sends shivers down my spine to think that this ancient piece of our history lies just a short walk from our home.

An ariel view of Thornborough Henges (photo courtesy of Historic England)
An ariel view of Thornborough Henges (photo courtesy of Historic England)

We can visit it any time we choose, simply to tramp round and try to imagine it in its heyday, and we’ll have the place to ourselves.  Not on May-day though.  Today is the Gaelic feast of Beltane, half way between the spring and summer solstices.  It’s a day to mark the beginning of summer. Sadly, today is very cold, rather windy and a bit wet.

Back in pre-historic times, rituals were held on this day to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth.  Bonfires, deemed to have protective powers, were lit.  For many centuries these practices died out.  But nowadays, at sites like Thornborough, pagans, Wiccans, New-Agers and lovers of history and tradition gather once more to celebrate the renewal of life and growth.

Today I was there too.  For an hour at least, for the opening ceremony. Brrr!  It was cold.

The Green Man and his horn.
The Green Man and his horn.

I was strangely moved.  The Green Man, representing rebirth and the cycle of growth was our Master of Ceremonies.  He invited us all to join hands, whether friends or strangers, in fellowship, and shout out three times the invocation to new life. We hailed Brigantia, Celtic goddess of Northern England.  Then at his bidding and as he sounded his horn, we turned to the east and welcomed the summer rains.  We turned south to welcome the sun (who was coyly absent today), to the west to welcome summer winds, and to the north where the wolves apparently are.

Welcoming the West Wind.
Welcoming the West Wind.

Then a man, naked from the waist upwards save for his covering of woad-coloured paint, leapt among us bearing the flaming torches which would offer us all protection over the coming months.

Protective flames.
Protective flames.

And that was the ceremony over.  Dancers entertained us.  They seemed to me to owe much to flamenco and to middle-eastern belly dancing traditions, but we all cheered them on with enthusiasm.Beltane&BanquetingHouseMay2016 052

I shan’t be there this year for the closing ceremony.  I’m still thawing out.  But weather permitting, I’ll certainly go along next year.  Will you come along too?Beltane&BanquetingHouseMay2016 047