May Day

The pagans and the Unitarians unite to re-create Celtic tradition

Other Beltane traditions include eating bannocks (oatmeal cakes) and making a rope out of the hairs from a cow's tail and dragging it in the morning dew to ensure a good milk supply. After a night of festivities, the May Queen and her king took bundles of fresh flowers door-to-door. May Day was one of the merriest holidays of the Middle Ages -- people particularly liked it because even after the Crusades May Day remained church-service-free.

The Puritans (being utterly unfun) outlawed Beltane celebrations including maypoles in 1644. The Puritans wanted to keep men and women indoors, instead of out in the woods dancing all night. The Puritans complained that girls who went into the woods came back without their virginity. Peasants throughout the Scottish Highlands continued to celebrate May Day. The holiday regained popularity during the Restoration of England, when parliament overturned the 1644 ban. After that, May Day celebrations were carried over to the States with British colonists. The holiday morphed and changed, since the straitlaced Victorians ignored most of the significant pagan rituals. Instead of a fertility rite, dancing around the maypole became a children's game.

Male, female, male, female, the Unitarians and pagans put down their programs and gathered up ribbons. "I need a man right here!" a woman yelled. Another woman stepped up and said she'd substitute.

May Queen Amy Knight showed up three centuries too late.
Deron Neblett
May Queen Amy Knight showed up three centuries too late.

Lifting the ribbons over their heads, they wove around the pole, screaming and laughing as they bumped into each other. "You can't go over and under somebody that many times without smiling," said Eberle, a Montessori schoolteacher.

Jill Haberman stood to the side wearing a flowery peach dress and jingle bells around her ankles. "I'm a traffic cone," said Jill, 34. She was standing over a big hole she was afraid someone would fall in.

After a few minutes the weaving started to work. The pole began to look like a Chinese finger cuff. "They're doing good this year," Jill said. "We've never gotten it right." This was their fourth year trying.

Mary stood under an oak tree clapping her hands over her head. "They got it," she cried. "They got it!"

The May Queen was the only person who really seemed into it. Amy was spinning circles and smiling and kicking and doing little dance steps as she skipped and swirled and wove. She was the only one in costume, so maybe that contributed to her spirit. The Northbrook Senior High School student had handmade her heavy green brocade dress with the help of her chemistry teacher. Amy had put in the boning and the lace-up bustier and had sewn bells to the bottom of one of her petticoats. Despite the growing afternoon heat, she smiled the whole time.

The more they wove, the closer the circle closed around the pole. Soon the circle was only about two feet in diameter.

"This is getting tight," observed Bill Walker, the president of the Unitarian congregation. "This is where it gets really nasty. Full contact."

Standing next to him, Pete Frost agreed: "We need a referee."

The bodies smashing together didn't bother the lady beside him. Her son had already had his sex-ed talk, she said.

Hair falling down and soaked in sweat, the May Queen staggered away from the pole. "I need something to drink," Amy said. Her peacock-feather earrings looked tired as she untied the long sleeves from her dress and took off her five petticoats. She removed the chain-mail necklace because she thought her sweat was going to corrode the metal.

Mary raised her paper cup of pink lemonade: "Toast the Queen of the May!"

Then they ate hot dogs. Some people went home; others stayed to unravel the maypole ribbons (it wasn't theirs -- they had to give it back to The School of the Woods).

The May Queen was disappointed when the event was over. It wasn't enough for her. She wanted to have a larger celebration like the Celts used to. She wanted fires and feasts with roasted venison and cups of mead.

"This is the pansy version of it," she said, untangling the ribbons. "We're supposed to have a big bonfire and herd the cattle through."

Herding cattle through the flames kept the cows well and made them more fertile. Touching the fire was thought to be like touching the sun. Black hillsides burst into flames as people whirled sticks around their heads imitating the circling sun. Some say Beltane is where the myth that witches ride broomsticks comes from, since pagans holding sticks would jump as high as the crops would grow. To help the crops, couples spent the whole night making love in the woods. Married people were allowed to take off their wedding rings and grab a partner. They danced, drank, feasted and sang all night.

Rolling a ribbon, Amy said with a sigh: "I was born about 300 years too late."

As for there not being a bonfire, Mary didn't want to burn down the newly remodeled church sanctuary. There wasn't a good place in the lush backyard for a fire, and besides, no one had any cows. And even though it allegedly helps the crops, Mary didn't want people to get naked and make love.

"They'll have to go home for that," Mary said. If she let that happen, a bunch of perverts would show up, she said. She didn't want that.

"This," she said, "is a family church."

E-mail Wendy Grossman at wendy.grossman@houstonpress.com.

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