The first of May is Mayday, the second of the four cross-quarter Days of the year. It falls midway between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice, two of the year’s quarter days. In Celtic England, Mayday was called Beltane. The Sun today will rise midway between the place it rises along the horizon on the day of the Spring Equinox, and its northernmost rising point on June 21st, the Solstice.
In old England (very old England), Beltane was a full-blooded pagan ritual day, where the gods were invoked for their protection during the growing season. Great bon-fires were lit on every hill (presumably a relic from the days of human sacrifice). Indeed, the very name Beltane seems to mean ‘bright fire’. These and other traditions and rituals hung on for many centuries, for the most part, to the delight of royalty and commoner alike. General carousing and licentiousness seems to have been the order of the day.
Or night, I should say, and that was the problem. The Puritans of the Restoration were appalled, and railed against the specific practices of Mayday that one doesn’t go into in a family newsletter. And given the strength of the Puritans, after a while things had simmered down by quite a bit. By the 18th century, ladies ventured out into the night to do no more than wash away their freckles in the day’s morning dew, dew from new-made graves was collected for use in a variety of ailments (from gout to weak eyes), nine teams of nine married men (or 81 first-born sons) would make fire by rubbing two oaken poles together, and spring nosegays were entwined through the hair of all fair maidens, and the noserings of the family bovine. All innocent enough, I suppose.
The raising of the maypole seems to have been originally an Anglo-Saxon custom, which gained much popularity in England during the early middle ages. But along came those Puritans, and it became a “stinking Idol” with distinctly dubious origins. The central custom of it all, however, was the ‘bringing in of the May’, or spring, and Mayday dawn signalled the time of planting and of driving the sheep and cattle from their winter quarters to their summer grazing lands.
Today, of course, we do none of this, and we certainly take no note of where the Sun is rising or setting along the horizon. For the most part, we have forgotten how to look at the sky, and with that ability lost, we have lost these attendant holidays. For better or worse.