05/01/2011 01:19 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

May Day: A Bawdy Festival of Fertility

May Day is an old European spring fertility and copulation festival held in honor of the trees and their mistresses, the virgin vegetation goddesses. Celebrated as Floralia by the Romans, Walpurgisnacht by the Teutons, Whitsuntide by the Dutch, and Beltane by the Celts, it centered on romantic devotions to the nubile goddesses of spring, Flora, Walpurga and Maia, for whom this month is named. Maia can be traced back to Maya, the pre-Vedic mistress of perceptual reality who was the virgin mother of the Buddha. The Greek goddess, Maia was the virgin mother of Hermes. Her descendant, Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, is patroness of the month of May, which the early church dedicated to Her.

The festivities began on May Day morning when the young girls would go out in the pre-dawn hours to wash their faces in May dew, which was held to be fortifying as well as beautifying. In 1515, Catherine of Aragon was reported to have traveled into the forest with 25 ladies in waiting to bathe in the May dew. Samuel Pepys notes in his diary that his wife gathered May dew in 1667, "which Mrs. Turner hath taught her is the only thing in the world to wash her face with: and I am contented with it." Oliver Cromwell, who died in 1658, is said to have partaken of May dew on medical advice. This custom survived until relatively recently in the Ozark Mountains where girls washed their face in May dew at sunrise so that they might marry the man of their desire.

At first light, the boys joined them in the forest and together they brought in the May -- small trees, branches and flowers with which to decorate the village green, streets and houses. In England, they sang in the May, adding music to their forest procession. This custom continued well into the twentieth century in the practice of leaving May baskets filled with flowers and sweets and rhyming love verses at the door of one's beloved at dusk on May 1.

The group of young folks then stripped a tall tree of its branches and set it up in the village square. The top was crowned with a wreath of flowers and sometimes a female figurine as well. The garland wrapped pole is a clear and graphic representation of a phallus encircled by a yoni. This Maypole was then hung with ribbons which were woven around the pole in the course of a grand-right-and-left spiral dance, intertwining the young men and women in the process; bringing them, binding them, ever closer together. In Medieval and Tudor Britain, May Day was an important public holiday, still sizzling with sexual abandon.

Early spring rites included the wearing of the green, a symbolic modeling of the earth's verdant new garments, a sign of imitation and identification with the natural world. A loving gesture of sympathetic magic, which has continued in the Irish tradition of putting on the green for St. Patrick's Day. May Day festivals, which began with great public gaiety, usually ended in orgiastic display of sexual licentiousness. Marriage vows were temporarily forgotten during this honey month. People coupled freely in the woods and fields, fertilizing the soil and each other, sharing a fervent participation in the regenerative magic of the earth.

It is no wonder that the puritan Anglo-Saxon Protestant fathers were deeply offended by the Maypole ceremony, with its not-so-subtle sexual connotations and pagan sensibilities. Maypoles were forbidden by act of parliament in 1644, which called for the removal of "Maypoles (a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness), the Lords and Commons do further order and ordain, that all and singular Maypoles, that are, or shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed by the Constaples and Church Wardens of the parishes and places where the same be; and that no Maypole shall be hereafter set up, erected, or suffered to be within this Kingdome of England or Dominion of Wales."

Maypoles later regained favor during the Restoration. The last permanent public Maypole was erected in the London Strand in 1661. It took twelve British soldiers under the personal supervision of James II to plant the 134-foot cedar pole in the ground. In 1717 it was removed to Wanstead Park in Essex where it was adapted by Sir Isaac Newton for use as part of the support of the largest telescope in the world. In its new job, the pole, the representation of the tree of life, rooted in the ground and reaching up toward heaven, serves exactly its original symbolic function: the unification of the earth and the sky.

Like all of the devotional rites dedicated to the popular earth goddesses that they could not repress, May Day was ultimately claimed by the Church as its own. In doing so, the veneration of the Maypole was left completely intact. The tree simply became the cross, which is venerated on May 3 as Holy Cross Day.

This May Day let us pay tribute to the Earth Mother and Her daughter goddesses of green growth by planting May trees and flowers and then dancing around them to celebrate the lovely, lusty miracle of life.

Some rituals deserve to be repeated.