May Day

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

It was a typical Sunday-morning service at the Unitarian Universalist church on Wirt Road. Six people stood up and shared their joys and concerns -- a little boy celebrated two first places at a karate tournament, and a 35-year-old lit a candle for his late wife. The small sandbox was filled with flaming white candles. While a basket was passed during the offering, the pianist played "It's May, it's May, the lusty month of May" from Camelot.

With a wreath of fake blue daisies in her ink-black hair, 51-year-old Mary LeBlanc went up to the microphone. A member of the church, the Wiccan woman was in charge of the May Day festivities. Mary picked up a boom box and started the procession outdoors. When she hit the play button something that sounded like a Sousa march filled the air, then switched into music more akin to Lord of the Dance.

"Oss Oss We Oss!" Mary cried. She asked the children and the congregants to join in. "Oss Oss We Oss!" They chanted while reading their programs. They shouted, "Unite and unite and let us unite / for summer is a-coming today / and whither we are going we all will unite / in the merry morning of May."

Mary LeBlanc "osses" with the best of them.
Deron Neblett
Mary LeBlanc "osses" with the best of them.
The folks had a good time at the traditional fertility festival.
Deron Neblett
The folks had a good time at the traditional fertility festival.
May Queen Amy Knight showed up three centuries too late.
Deron Neblett
May Queen Amy Knight showed up three centuries too late.

It was Beltane. Held on May Eve, halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, it's the second most important Wiccan holiday. It's the time when winter meets summer and darkness meets light. Beltane is the counterpart to Samhain (Halloween). Pagans believe that on these two sabbats the veil between the earth and the otherworld is the thinnest. On Halloween, ghosts can visit the living, but on Beltane, the living can visit the dead. Halloween is about death, and Beltane is about creating new life.

Beltane means "fire of Bel," the Celtic god of light. The fertility festival celebrates the coming of the summer sun. Of course, it was cloudy and cool on the day they chose to celebrate warmth. But as the congregation marched outside to the wooded patch behind the church, the sun emerged. Someone beat a snare drum, and another guy banged on a conga drum like Ricky Ricardo did when he sang "Babaloo."

"We're pretty conventional," said nonpagan Unitarian John Haberman, "but we let the pagans loose every once in a while."

The Unitarian congregation encompasses people of all religions. Among the Jews and Christians there's a handful of pagans, like Mary and 18-year-old Amy Knight, the May Queen. Unitarians believe in religious freedom and that people can learn something from every religion. They take customs they like from existing religions and create their own traditions. May Day celebrations are fun and outdoors and a happy childhood memory for many of the participants.

Not all of the churchgoing pagans are out of the broom closet, so they aren't named here. Amy and her mother, Eberle Knight, became Wiccan six years ago when they started taking circle lessons together. Amy said she has always had strong pagan leanings -- she has howled at the moon since she was two. (Her nickname is Wolfie.) Amy likes the freedom of being Wiccan and the fact that pagans don't have a set dogma to follow or strict beliefs. It's not like being on Charmed, she said. She doesn't cast spells or kill warlocks. "Basically," Amy said, "you just have to be good to other people." Amy is an outgoing, talkative teenager who wants to be a veterinarian. She looks a lot like Glenda the Good Witch.

A dozen people, all Unitarians and some of them pagans, gathered around the maypole with pink, peach and purple ribbons. At the foot of each ribbon was a basket of silk spring flowers.

"We don't fit!" someone complained.

A voice shouted back: "Just stretch the kids." The kids giggled.

Mary screamed for attention. "I hope you all remember 'Here we go round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush,' " she sang, "because we're going to use the same tune." They just switched "mulberry bush" to "merry maypole." People checked their programs.

During the first verse, they held hands and galloped around the circle à la "Ring Around the Rosie." For the second verse, Mary said to "make like you're picking flowers." She bent down and demonstrated. For the third verse, she told people to stomp the ground.

"You're supposed to stomp the earth to wake it up," Mary explained. "In Texas, spring has a long time been here, but in England they're still trying to wake it up."

Beltane originated hundreds of years ago in Celtic Ireland. All hearth fires were extinguished the night before May Day, and a druid lit a fresh fire in the center of the village. Bonfires burned throughout the British Isles, welcoming the return of life and fertility after a dead, dark winter. At dawn people relit their house fires with flames from the village bonfire. Traditionally, Beltane commemorated the time when people had just finished planting their crops; farmers wanted the sun to shine and make the food grow. So people lit fires and prayed that the land would be fertile. Once the embers died down, they were spread among the crops. The Celts also wanted people to be fertile, so women who wanted to get pregnant and young married couples jumped the flames. People stayed up all night dancing in the fields, "a maying," to help the vegetables grow. The next morning, the pagans gathered and danced around the maypole.

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.

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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