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.

Fat Tuesday

King Cake
King Cake

Today is Fat Tuesday. If you want to be more French, it is Mardi Gras. It began as a preface to the religious holy day of Ash Wednesday. It is the last day to eat up the fatty foods before the ritual fasting of Lent which is a penitential season.

I’m taking Fat Tuesday quite literally this year. On this Tuesday, I am feeling fat and my scale tells me it’s more than a feeling. I hit my all-time heaviest this past weekend. I’ve done it before and I have shed 25 pounds before and then eventually gained it all back.

On Fat Tuesday, people would indulge one last time in foods that they might give up as their Lenten sacrifice for the upcoming forty days. Being brought up Catholic, my mother and the church made a big deal about giving up something you enjoyed for Lent. Chocolate, candies, desserts were typical choices. I recall people giving up (or trying to give up) television, cursing, and other bad habits. Our local church held an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast on this day, perhaps as a way to illustrate the sin of gluttony.

Church bells seemed to ring more often as another reminder of what sinners we had become and remind us to now repent. The church didn’t formally endorse Fat Tuesday but since a season of fasting was ahead you had to get rid of all the forbidden foods. You weren’t going to thrown away good food away, so this idea of partying and eating all remaining foods began. The non-religious party that is Mardi Gras begins two weeks before the day that carries the name.

At one time, the fasting was more serious. Forbidden foods included meat, eggs, and dairy products. Shrove Tuesday is the name given to today by many Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Roman Catholics. For those who mark the day in a religious manner, it is about self-examination, considering the wrongs you need to repent, and what life changes you need to make. It does seem an appropriate day to start a diet.

This moveable feast is determined by when Easter occurs. The name “Shrove Tuesday” comes from the word shrive, an archaic verb meaning “absolve” from the Old English scrīfan which meant “to impose as a penance.”

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. (Lent is a 40-day season because the Sundays aren’t counted. ) The 40-day period represents Christ’s time of temptation in the wilderness, where he fasted and where Satan tempted him. Lent symbolically, if not literally, asks believers to set aside time for similar fasting before Christ’s resurrection.

This first day of Lent is about confession and absolution. The symbolic ritual of burning of the previous year’s Holy Week palms happens on this day. On Ash Wednesday, the repentance ashes on put on the foreheads of churchgoers. As a child, I found this frightening as the priest would say “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” And since it was a school day, if you went to the early morning mass, you wore those ashes to school. It identified you. Maybe in a good way or a bad way depending on your neighborhood and classmates.

Foods that are traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday (or during Mardi Gras) can be sweet. In the UK, Fat Tuesday is Pancake Day, and in Poland, it’s Paczki Day named for those jelly-filled doughnuts. In the U.S., places like New Orleans that celebrate Mardi Gras often serve the colorful King Cake with its rich, brioche dough and filled with cinnamon, chocolate, and cream cheese. But the food can also be fatty and savory, such as fried Po’Boys.

I’m treating that day as a second chance New Year’s resolution. Eat up the remaining ice cream, donuts, chips and dip, and then try to give up all that bad food for 40 days. Maybe prayers would help.

A detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Fight between Carnival and Lent’, 1559

I Am Celebrating Everything

I don’t know what to celebrate today and tomorrow.

The lunar calendar is a calendar based upon the monthly cycles of the Moon’s phases (synodic months), rather than the solar calendars that most Westerners are familiar with and use daily. The Gregorian calendar, which is a solar calendar and is the most common calendar system, originally evolved out of a lunar calendar system.

year of tigerToday, that lunar calendar makes this the New Year that is most known as the “Chinese New Year.” This year is the Year of the Tiger. I made the mistake last year of ordering Chinese takeout on this day. Wow, was that a long, long wait for delivery!

But the Lunar New Year is celebrated by all those who follow the lunisolar calendar, including countries such as China, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Mongolia and Indonesia, as well as diaspora communities all over the world. Similarly, Tibet, Thailand, India and other South and Southeast Asian cultures celebrate the new year based on local calendars.

Imbolc and BrigidBut I could celebrate the ancient Imbolc, a word  that comes from the Old Irish imbolg, which means “in the belly.” That needs some explanation.

It probably comes from early February being the time when ewes became pregnant and will produce spring lambs.

candles Christians took this pagan holiday and repurposed it as tomorrow’s Candlemas Day (Candelora in Italy). Imbolc became associated with Saint Brigid who was thought to bring the healing power of the Sun back to the world.

But Candlemas is meant to mark the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after his birth. Any church ceremony will include bringing candles (the return of light) and Brigid’s crosses to church to be blessed.

Of course, tomorrow Groundhog Day takes most of the attention in America. What can I say about that silly holiday that has some origins in nature that I haven’t already written about on this site?


The Twelve Days of Christmas Will Cost You $41,000

The 12 Days of Christmas is yet another aspect of Christmas that was a part of Christian theology but might be better known as a rather silly and secular holiday song.  In Christianity, the 12 days mark the span between the birth of Christ (December 25) and January 5, the night before the coming of the three wise men (Magi) on January 6. That ending date is the Epiphany, sometimes called Three Kings’ Day or Little Christmas.  Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of January 5th, the day before Epiphany, which traditionally marks the end of Christmas celebrations”

In a totally secular approach to the 12 days based on the song , PNC (the bank folks) have been tracking how much it would cost to buy all that stuff in the 12 days song.

The total costs of everything this year would be more than $41,000. That’s up $2,000 from 2019. I guess this is about inflation.

One thing that didn’t get hit by inflation though is the eight maids a-milking. How come? The federal minimum wage stayed the same.

Why compare to 2019 data? PNC says that is a better gauge of the impacts of inflation before the pandemic’s effects took hold of the global economy.

Two turtle doves will set you back $450.00. That’s up 50%. Apparently great volatility in the bird markets in 2021. So, no big surprise that 3 French Hens went up 40%. I should have invested in birds this year.

But it’s a bit confusing that 4 Four Calling Birds (Are those like cardinals?) is still $599.96 – no change from 2019. Why are we downgrading calling birds? Still, not cheap.

I don’t think I was fully conscious of how many winged things are in this song. 6 geese and 7 swans too?  Is this really what your true love would want? Not my true love, who said she’d take the 5 gold rings. Not bad at $895. Only up 8.5%  because of slight gold commodity and retail price increases.

To add some music – though just pipes and drums – will see you back $2,943.93 (+7.1%) for 11 pipers and $3,183.17 for 12 drummers.  Or you could just use Spotify and play some love songs.

Boxing Day, Kwanzaa, Wren Day and St. Stephen’s Day

Dec 26

December 26 has a number of holidays attached to it. Did you give your true love two turtle doves? Probably not, but there might be wren involved, or a box, or the start of a harvest festival, or a day to honor a saint.

From my blogs, here is some information on each.

Today is Boxing Day, a mostly British holiday. But why is it called “Boxing Day?”

The newest holiday for this day is Kwanzaa , a celebration of African-American heritage. And what are its origin and etymology?

St. Stephen’s Day is the oldest celebration of the 26th of December I found. It honors of the first Christian martyr. He was a Christian deacon in Jerusalem who was known for his service to the poor, and is the first Christian martyr. For his beliefs in Christianity, he was stoned to death in AD 36.

In the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas,” we hear:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even

For me, the oddest of celebrations today is Wren Day. In some countries, “wren-boys” go from house to house, carrying a holly bush adorned with ribbons and figures of birds. They sing:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family’s great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
If you haven’t a penny a halfpenny will do.
If you haven’t a halfpenny
God bless you.”

A Dark Carol for Christmas

            First edition of A Christmas Carol with Illustrations by John Leech

December 19, 1843, was when Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. The full title is A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas

Dickens wrote the novella in a time when the British were re-evaluating past Christmas traditions such as carols. The holiday was becoming more secular and newer customs such as Christmas cards and Christmas trees were becoming part of what was being seen as a family holiday.

A year earlier, he had visited Cornwall to see for himself the horrible conditions of child workers in the mines there. He also visited the Field Lane Ragged School which was a place for London’s many homeless “street children.” It made him so angry that he decided to write a book exposing the terrible situation of children in poverty, and publish it at his own expense.

His previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit had been a flop, and he was strapped for cash. Since the last book had been satirical and pessimistic, he ultimately decided to go for a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme. The book didn’t cause great social change in England but it is actually quite dark for most of its pages. What it did change was the way the Christmas season would be celebrated.

The story skirts the edges of being a religious story in a number of ways. The treatment of the poor and the ability of a selfish man to redeem himself certainly touches on many religions. The reconsideration of carols (a religious folk song or popular hymn, particularly one associated with Christmas) probably played a part in the book’s title, but Dickens treats Scrooge’s transformation without religious connotations. The book has long been seen as both a secular story and a Christian allegory.

Scrooge visited by Marley’s ghost

Many people know the story even if they never read the book from the many film and TV versions. Ebenezer Scrooge is an elderly miser who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and three spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. These experiences all take place on Christmas Eve and change him into a kinder, gentler man.

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

As a child, I saw the classic 1951 film version with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. I was still a Santa believer and I know the ghosts scared me in the same way that the witches scared me in The Wizard of Oz. Now, that film version and some of the more contemporary ones seem to me to be almost film noir. I find it interesting that many holiday films, even fluffy ones such as A Christmas Story Elf or Home Alone, but also classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, have dark elements. As someone who has very mixed memories of Christmas seasons in my past both happy and sad, that seems right.

Yet to Come
The last ghost – Yet to Come

The final spirit to visit in this ghost story represents the future Yet to Come. It is silent and dark and the scariest of the spirits. Scrooge is concerned about whether or not the future is set or whether it can still be changed for the better. In Dickens’ version of this ghostly time travel, the future is not set.

“No space of regret can make amends
for one life’s opportunity misused”

The happiest spirit to visit represent Christmas Present. It’s ironic to Scrooge because he sees his employee Bob and his family, including the ill son Tim, being very happy on Christmas Eve even though he feels he has almost nothing to be happy about – and he knows he is partially responsible for their poverty.

“Reflect upon your present blessings
– of which every man has many –
not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

Christmas present

As I said, when the book was originally published the way Christmas was represented was somewhat controversial. Puritans in England and America argued that Christmas was a holiday from the days when pagans celebrated the winter solstice and many Christians felt that the extravagance of Christmas was an insult to the story of Christ.

But A Christmas Carol won out and was a huge best-seller in both England and the United States. It certainly set a different tone for modern Christmas that has numerous nods to a Dickens Christmas with figgy pudding.

I am not against seasonal generosity, gifting, feasting, and merriment but it does seem that something important has been lost in the holiday and our celebration. As I wrote last weekend about the Santa aspect of the holiday, the holiday seems much changed even from the Christmas I remember in the 1950s.

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.
May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”