In the Native American tradition May is called the month of the flower moon. It is said that the flowers dance at night under this full moon.
In the Celtic tradition, the festival of Beltane on May 1 marked the midpoint between spring and summer. Fires were lit and the cattle that survived the winter were driven between the bonfires as a symbol of purification. The Ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Maia, whence the name May originates -- as well as Florifertum, which was dedicated to Flora, the goddess of the flowers.
May Day is still celebrated in many parts of Europe, from England to Provence to Bavaria, where they decorate their homes with flowers, play music, and dance around a "maypole" adorned with brightly-colored ribbons. The maypole represents the male and the ribbons and flowers the female. Men and women weave flowers into a crown (a tradition still used in some wedding ceremonies for both men and women). They use whatever flowers are blooming at the time. Red traditionally means passion, pink suggests compassion, while yellow represents new beginnings. Every year some lucky girl is crowned Queen of the May. Her consort is "the Green Man," symbolizing the spirit of vegetation. She is sometimes set in an arbor of flowers, and often dancing is performed around her, rather than around the maypole.
The ancients revered sexuality as sacred. They understood that this was a spiritual force that brought new life. Making love in the fields on May Eve was thought to enhance the fertility of the growing crops and many of the celebrations at this time were intended to bring in the energy for procreation.
Although the maypole is mainly a symbol of fertility, it also reflects the symbolism of the "world tree" common to many cultures -- bridging the gap between heaven and earth.
For many, this is also the time of fairies -- think of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In old folklore, this was the last chance for mischievous fairies to travel to earth. They would protect themselves by decorating their homes with fresh greenery. Even in ancient Rome, offerings were made to placate wandering spirits, only they used a mixture of salt and grain.
On another note, in Japan on May 5 children are celebrated in a festival called Kodomono-hi. Kites made of cloth or paper in the shape of carp (known for their strength and determined energy) are flown on this day. The festival was meant to demonstrate the important qualities of strength and other positive characteristics. Children are bathed in iris leaves to purify them and protect them from illness. This festival was originally for boys only but has since been changed to include both boys and girls.
A few years ago, I took my kid's spirituality group up on my roof to dance around a maypole. Another year, because of bad weather, we did it indoors in an apartment. They loved it. So this year, why not make your own maypole and just dance into May.
Making a Maypole
The pole part can be a tree if you are lucky enough to be near one, or it can be any kind of pole, approximately six feet in length and one or two inches in diameter. (If need be, try a laundry pole or a broomstick. I used a Christmas tree holder and pole to celebrate spring with a group of kids on my roof in NYC.)
Dig a hole for the pole at least one foot deep and wedge the base with rocks. The colored ribbon should be cut to lengths about one and a half times as long as the pole and, at the time of the ritual, tied to the top.
Erect the maypole and attach the colored ribbons. Have some in your group dance clockwise and some counterclockwise, alternating under and over one another. As you dance around the Maypole in this pattern your movements will weave the ribbons into a quilt of color that will make your wishes come true. As you weave your wishes into the braided ribbons, let it be a wonderful demonstration of the cooperation that we all need to live a balanced life. End by having a picnic of spring foods.
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