May Day and its Traditions
Teenage boys and girls leave their homes late at night and meet in the dark woods not to return until late in the morning. What to think? It's one of the rights of spring that is still celebrated in areas around the world as part of May Day. As Shakespeare wrote in Midsummer Night's Dream,
"If thou lov'st me then,
Steal forth thy father's house to-morrow night
And in the wood, a league without the town,
Where I did met thee once with Helena,
To do observance for a morn of May,
There will I stay for thee."
While the May Day celebrations we might be more familiar with deal with dancing about a May Pole, gathering woods and flowers, singing, even making some special foods for the occasion, many in the days of yore looked on the celebration with a bit of eroticism in their hearts. One man who wasn't particularly pleased with the celebration often called Maytime, or as Tennyson once called it, "the boyhood of the year," is Philip Stubbs.
In his "Anatomie of Abuses" written in 1585, the old gentleman wrote,
"Against Maie, every parishe, towne, and village, assemble themselves together, bothe men, women, and children, olde and Yong, even all indifferently: and either goyng all together, or devidyng themselves into companies, they goe some to the woodes and groves, some to the hilles and mountaines, some to one place, some to another, where they spende all the night in pastymes, and in the mornyng they returne, bringing with them birch, bowes, and braunches of trees to deck their assemblies withall. I have heard it credibly reported (and that viva voce) by men of great gravitie, credite, and reputation, that of fourtie, threescore, or a hundred maides goyng to the woode over night, there have scarcely the thirde parte of them returned home againe undefiled."
It's ten O'clock, do you know where your children are? To put this in a little better perspective, we must remember that many of the traditions that have been passed down through the last several thousand years began with the Celts, and of course those old rogues the Romans added their particular flair to the program as well.
Some, after reading this will have a strong desire to return to the 'olde' ways of celebrating this first day of May. Others might dance around a Maypole, eat a concoction called a Serpent Cake (See sidebar). In many pre-Christian religions, serpents were considered to be closest to the earth and were looked on with favor. A few good souls will celebrate May Day in a northern England tradition called May Gosling. Gosling is similar to our April Fool's Day, and tradition has it that when a trick was pulled on someone, the trickster would holler loud and clear, "May Gosling."
He or she who was tricked was then to repeat, "May Goslings past and gone. You're the fool for making me one." Maybe you had to be there. May Day Monday is a bank holiday in Great Britain. Chimney sweeps are often given the day off in parts of the Island Nation as well. One town, Rochester hosts a Sweeps Festival.
When I was a young boy we prepared for weeks to put on a May Day program for our parents that included dancing around the Maypole. Strands of ribbons were used centuries ago, but as children, we used crepe paper. Reams of crepe paper. Weaving in and out; when the pole was wrapped it was supposed to look as a braided pole might look. This often was not the case. Girls danced clock-wise as I recall and we boys were to dance counter clock-wise, and so you immediately see the problem. The girls rarely messed up.
We who were so young did not fully understand the meaning of Maying, of the rites of spring. According to Celt folklore, the weaving of the ribbons signifies the making of something from the two strands of ribbons, a fertility symbol if you will, the creation of a third from the melding of the two. Using a cut tree for the pole was also symbolic as the Celts believed strongly in tree spirits, among other gods and spirits.
It's been written that in the Celtic world, the juveniles of both sexes were wont to rise a little after midnight on the morning of May Day, walk to the neighboring forests where they broke down branches from the trees and decorating them with flowers and grasses would wend their way home, many hours later, to show their creations.
Did the Celts learn from the Romans? Or the other way around? Or, most likely since spring is such a special time for planting, growing, budding, loving, and all that nonsense, did the celebrations just happen naturally. The Celts with their love of trees and flowers and the Romans with their goddess Flora and the festival of Flora, simply acted out the spontaneity of life.
On their first day of May, the Romans gathered fruits and flowers, cut branches and boughs to decorate their homes and cities. The festival of Flora was considered the beginning of summer and the gathering was done at dawn.
It was the socialist and communist movements that changed the party from a celebration of life to a political promotion of labor movements and war machines. The poets have it right, in particular good old Will Shakespeare in "to do observance for a morn of May." 'Tis time for a walk in the woods, I do believe.
Ingredients for a serpent cake include sugar, cloves, nutmeg, orange zest, salt, butter, honey, strong coffee, egg, rum, fruit jam, flour, and baking soda. The dough is rolled into a cylinder with one end being a snake’s head. The cake is then twisted into a snake, and baked. Coffee beans are often added as the snake’s eyes.
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons honey, boiling
Garnish: 4 coffee beans and some candied orange peel, in slices
Preheat the oven to 400º F. Mix the sugar, spices, zest, soda, and salt into the flour in a bowl. Cut in the butter until little pebbles form. Pour in the honey, coffee, and liqueur, and mix in the egg. Mix the batter until everything is evenly distributed and you have a nice soft dough. Let it cool. Turn it out onto a floured surface and divide in half. Roll one half into an 18-inch rope. Make a deep trough down the center and fill it with jam. Seal it by bringing the edges up over the jam and pressing the seam together. Then flip it seam-side-down onto a parchment-paper-covered baking sheet. Arrange the snake in a circle, but don't press the ends together. Make one end tapered like the end of a snake's tail, and make the other end triangular like a snake's head. Press in coffee beans for eyes and orange rind for scales if desired. Repeat this process with the other half of the dough and bake them for 30 minutes.
Yield: 2 snake cakes.
Source: Paraphrased from Grimassi, Beltane