The Many Associations with May First

May Day (May first) is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival. May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and is celebrated unofficially in many other countries.

Vulcan & Maia
Vulcan and Maia (1585) by Bartholomäus Spranger

The month of May goes back to the Greek goddess Maia for its name. She is the most important of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) and the mother of Hermes (Mercury). Some form of this goddess’s name was known to people from Ireland and as far away as India. The Romans called her Maius, goddess of Summer, and honored her during Ambarvalia, a family festival for the purification and protection of farmland.

My holiday cactuses usually bloom for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter but this year they somehow knew it was May Day.

The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries

In the Celtic cultures, May was called Mai or Maj, a month of sexual freedom. Green was worn during this month to honor the Earth Mother.

May 1 was the Celtic festival of Beltane, a festival celebrating the fertility of all things. Cattle were driven through the Beltane bonfires for purification and fertility.

In Wales, Creiddylad was a character connected with this festival and was often called the May Queen. The maypole and its dance are a remnant of these old festivities.

Bona Dea, the Roman Good Goddess, had her festival on the night between May 2 and 3. No men were allowed to attend.

The Greeks had a special festival for the god Pan during May. Pan was a wild-looking deity that was half-man, half-goat. Pan invented the syrinx, or pan-pipes, made out of reeds.

In Finland, May 1 was celebrated as Rowan Witch Day, a time of honoring the goddess Rauni, who was associated with the mouton ash or rowan whose twigs and branches were used as protection against witches and evil in that part of the world.

In more modern tradition, May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These are small baskets usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone’s doorstep. The giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver and if they catch the person, a kiss is exchanged.

Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. include the holidays “Green Root” (pagan) and “Red Root” (labor) traditions.

International Workers’ Day (AKA May Day) is a celebration of the international labor movement and left-wing movements. It commonly sees organized street demonstrations and marches by working people and their labor unions throughout most of the world. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement called for a General Strike that year on May Day.

NPR reports that May Day is “the opposite of capitalism.”

On May 1, 1886, anarchists and labor activists in Chicago began a multi-day strike in what became known as the Haymarket Affair. The protests turned violent when police attacked workers. Meeting in the city’s Haymarket Square, things turned bloodier and a bomb even exploded and police and civilians were killed.

A Day of No Labor

Today is Labor Day in the United States. It’s another holiday that seems to have lost a lot of its meaning.  Like some other holidays – Veterans Day, Memorial Day, some would even say Christmas – we now view this as a day off and a long weekend.

Many children associate this 3-day-weekend-holiday with the end of summer. Though some schools start the new year in August, in my part of the country most schools begin actual classes after Labor Day.

American Labor Day was first celebrated on a Tuesday – September 5, 1882 – and was organized by the Central Labor Union in New York as a day of rest for working persons.

The Haymarket Riots (or Haymarket affair or Haymarket massacre) was a demonstration on Tuesday, May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago. It started out as a rally in support of striking workers. Someone threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting and that resulted in gunfire from the police, the deaths of eight police officers (most from friendly fire) and some civilians. The legal proceedings that followed got international press and eight “anarchists” were tried for murder. Four men were convicted and executed, and one committed suicide in prison, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb.

There were efforts to use that May date as a holiday but U.S. President Grover Cleveland supported moving the holiday to a September date to avoid associations with the Haymarket riot and the Socialist May Day associations. He signed a bill into law making the September Labor Day observance a federal holiday in 1894.

Most other countries celebrate workers on May first of each year. “May Day” refers to several public holidays but is associated with International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organized by unions and other groups.

Americans don’t really do much to celebrate work or workers today. We have barbecues, backyard blowouts, watch early college football games. And yet, now might be the time we should consider workers. Unemployment is high, businesses are cutting back and there are still battles to raise the minimum wage to a living salary. It’s not a good time for labor unions either. There are lots of demands for concessions by unions on their contracts. Some politicians and corporations are calling for an end to unions and trying to stop new unionization of workers.

America is a work-obsessed culture. Many people are still working this weekend, just as during the worst of the pandemic when workers labeled as “essential” still had to go to their workplace while other workers were able to more safely work from home. Are those essential workers at the top of the salary guide and corporate ladder? No, it’s almost the opposite. Some of the lowest-paid and least respected workers were deemed “essential” in this very limited way.

It seems a shame that this holiday doesn’t have more of a connection to the positive aspects of work and workers and as a time to reflect on how labor is treated in the country.

Good Friday

rose window
The Rose Window at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, NJ by greeneydmantis, on Flickr

As a young Catholic boy, I didn’t understand the “Good” in “Good Friday.” It’s a religious holiday observed primarily by Christians commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his death at Calvary. How is that good?

The usage of  “good” is from the now obsolete sense of it meaning pious or holy. (Interestingly, the Old English version of good is gōd.) Today is also known as Holy Friday or Great Friday and is observed during Holy Week as part of the Paschal Triduum on the Friday preceding Easter Sunday, and may coincide (as it does this year) with the Jewish observance of Passover.

The Good Friday I remember most vividly was when I was ten years old. I had to go to a service on that day after school. It was a cold, rainy day. I was bored with the service (in that time, much of it was in Latin) but at about midway through the service thunder and lighting started outside. The lightning lit up the deep colors of the large stained glass window behind the altar.  Jesus on the cross lit up. The heavens boomed. It was dramatic, like a movie. It seemed like more than a coincidence to me. I paid attention.

The Catholic Church – and my mom – treated Good Friday as a fast day. Maybe my blood sugar was low. There is no celebration of Mass between the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening and the Easter Vigil and no celebration of the Eucharist. During this period crosses, candlesticks, and altar cloths are removed from the altar which remains completely bare. They emptied the holy water fonts in preparation for the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil. Traditionally, no bells are rung on Good Friday or Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil.
The vestments used on Good Friday were black back then.

It’s probably not a fair criticism, but going to church as a kid was never well staged for me. I liked the ritual but I wanted better lighting and better speakers and speeches. That aspect actually became less and less and mass seemed to me to be like going to a meeting. I’m surprised that PowerPoint didn’t become part of it.

I occupied myself by reading the book of Gospels during mass and trying to find poetry in the hymnal.

Eventually, I started bringing novels to church. I have a strong memory of reading The Grapes of Wrath in church and it seemed so much more relevant than what was going on around me. That novel has a number of Bible references and the main metaphor, the “grapes of wrath,” is a reference to Revelations and not a real upbeat message. “The cup of iniquity is full, the grapes of wrath are ripe, and now God crushes them in awesome judgment. Those who have rejected His grace feel the terror of His wrath.”

Historians who look at the details of the Canonical gospels say the Crucifixion of Jesus was most probably on a Friday (John 19:42). They estimate the year of Good Friday as AD 33. It is AD 34 according to Isaac Newton who used the differences between the Biblical and Julian calendars and the crescent of the moon to make a calculation. Another astronomical approach is based on a lunar Crucifixion darkness and eclipse model (see the Apostle Peter’s reference to a “moon of blood” in Acts 2:20) points to Friday, 3 April AD 33.

Tonight Hecate Walks

The goddess Hecate was worshiped by both the Greeks and the Romans who had their own festivals dedicated to her.

The Romans’ closest match to Hecate is probably the goddess Trivia *. They observed the 29th of every month as her sacred Moon day.

The Greeks were the main worshippers of her and observed two days sacred to Hecate. One celebration is on the 13th of August when she is honored and prayed to in order to not send fierce thunderstorms and ruin crops. They celebrate her again on the 30th of November in thanks for the harvest.

Some pagan and neo-pagan groups observe November 16 as the Night of Hecate which begins at sunset. Hecate worship, especially on her night, was performed at a three-way crossroads. Food left there is known as “the Supper of Hecate.”  The food varies but eggs, fish, roe, goat cheese, and bread are all mentioned online.

Hecate was the Greek goddess of the three paths, guardian of the household, protector of everything newly born, and the goddess of witchcraft. The number 3 is associated with her in many ways.

A beautiful and powerful goddess,  Hecate was the only one of the ancient Titans who Zeus allowed to retain their authority once the Olympians seized control. Zeus shared with Hecate, and only her, the awesome power of giving humanity anything she wished – or withholding it if she pleased.

Though she is thought of as a “Moon Goddess,” her kingdoms were actually three-fold – earth, sea, and sky. Her power to create or withhold storms made her the goddess who was the protector of shepherds and sailors.

She has been associated with childbirth, nurturing the young, gates and walls, doorways, crossroads, magic, lunar lore, torches, and dogs.

Hecate's Wheel
Hecate’s Wheel – symbol used to represent her three aspects.

Hecate is part of the most ancient form of the triple Moon goddess in mythology. The triple aspect of the goddess is Maiden, Mother, and Crone.

She was known to rule the passages of life and transformation, birth, and death. Her animals were the toad, the owl, the dog, and the bat.

In other posts about Hecate, I have written about her three-headed dogs that can look to the past, present, and future. When she walks on Earth at night, it is said that only dogs can see her and would bark at her. If you have a dog, see if it barks tonight outside at something that doesn’t seem to be there. Then, you can call hello to Hecate.

Hecate was a widely revered and influential goddess, but her reputation has been tarnished over the centuries. In current times, she is usually depicted as a “hag” or old witch stirring the cauldron. Shakespeare’s Macbeth had something to do with that.

In the play, she is seen as the ruler of the Three Witches. In Act 3, Scene 5, Hecate appears before the Witches and tells them Macbeth will be back to know his destiny and she proclaims that he will see apparitions that will, “by the strength of their illusion” lead him to conclude that he is safe. At the end of the scene, she says “And you all know, security / Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.” Macbeth’s belief that he is untouchable will ultimately result in his downfall. Some scholars believe that Hecate’s inclusion wasn’t even Shakespeare’s creation and that the scenes were added after his death.

* Word Wise –  Trivia in Roman mythology was the goddess who haunted crossroads, graveyards, and was the goddess of sorcery and witchcraft. She wandered at night and was seen only by the barking of dogs who told of her approach. The word trivia came from Latin. It is the plural of trivium which is “the place where three roads meet.” The trivium in Medieval English was an introductory curriculum at a university which involved the meeting of the three studies of grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

Start Saving Some Daylight

Tomorrow, March 8 at 2 a.m, will be the official start of Daylight Saving Time (DST) which is also known as “summer time” in Britain. By the way, the official name is Daylight Saving Time, not Daylight Savings Time, as you often see it written and hear it said. But at this point, you’ll hear daylight savings time or daylight time used in the United States and Canada.

Though it starts tomorrow many people put their clock ahead tonight. The phrase “spring ahead” has been associated with the March switch and “fall back” for the autumnal turning back of clocks.

I have been writing about DST for a few years explain the how and why there is even controversy about this practice of advancing clocks so that afternoons have more daylight but mornings have less light.

I recently saw that it was first proposed in 1895 by George Vernon Hudson, a New Zealand entomologist. I read that and thought “How odd that an entomologist would propose it.” Hudson is credited with proposing it because his shift-work job gave him leisure time to collect insects, and led him to value after-hours daylight. He presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society proposing a two-hour daylight-saving shift. Eventually, a one-hour shift got wider attention and adoption.

Though many countries use DST, the details vary by location and change occasionally.

There are arguments pro and con for using this system. Probably all of us have had some problems when DST forces us to shift clocks and our sense of time. This might be exacerbated in a country as large as the United States where several time zones exist.

Adding daylight has benefits for extending retail business days, sports, and other activities that benefit from longer daylight. extending the business day. Some studies show that traffic fatalities seem to be reduced when there is extra afternoon daylight. DST may have some positive effect on health and may reduce crime in some areas. One of the original appeals of DST was to reduce the use of electric lighting.

I also see claims that the extra daylight causes some problems for farming, evening activities (like entertainment) and activities that are connected to the sun and daylight.

Another Christmas

Today is the celebration of Christmas in the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar and was widespread in the Western Christian world until the Gregorian calendar was introduced in the 16th century. Most of the world adopted the Gregorian calendar, and the Julian calendar fell out of favor, but the Orthodox Church still follows it. These days, the Julian calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar — in 2100 that will change, and it will be 14 days behind — so for now, Russian Christmas is celebrated on January 7th.

via The Writer’s Almanac   January 7, 2020