One of the great seasonal holidays approaches: May Eve, which ushers in the merry month of May.
It is known by various names in various cultures and countries, such as Walpurgisnacht in Germany and Beltane in Ireland. This turning point of the year, halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, has long been a time for gathering around bonfires and frolicking in the green wood. Like Halloween, its sister holiday on the opposite side of the wheel of the year, there’s a sense that the veil between the worlds is thin. But on May Day, rather than ghosts, it’s the fairies you have to worry about. The Queen of the Fairies rides out on a snow-white horse, looking for mortals to take back to Fairyland with her for seven years. It is said that if you sit beneath a tree on May Eve, you might see her ride by or hear the bells of her horse as she passes. But hide your face, or she might choose you!
In centuries past, young people in England flocked to the woods to gather branches of the tree that flowers on May Day, the hawthorn (or May tree), although the Puritan Philip Stubbs was sure they were up to a lot more:
I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity, credit and reputation, that of forty, threescore, or a hundred maids going to the woods over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.
The medieval Welsh poets wrote many poems about May Day, inviting young women to join them in bowers of greenery. And dancing around the Maypole conveys the same sense of twining energies together in a pleasurable way.
For many years, my daughter and I have gone foraging for fragrant flowers on May Eve. We slip out of the house as dark falls and wander through the alleys we know well, looking for the low-lying lilacs and bushes dripping with bell-like blooms in parking strips. Back at home, we assemble little nosegays that we slip into paper cones with ribbon handles and hang on the doorknobs of the apartments in our building.
Whatever you do to celebrate May Eve and May Day, it should involve some sensual pleasure and just a frisson of friskiness.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”