“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease has all too short a date . . .
But thy eternal summer shall not fade . . .
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade . . .”
Summer, the season of joy and pleasant climes, is ushered in with one last fiery blast from the bluster and rain of March and April. May Eve, April 30, is the night when witches the world over commune to celebrate the sacred marriage, the union of the Lord and Lady, the Sun and Moon.
German witches celebrated the night in honor of the goddess Walpurga - their May Queen – with wild festivities on the Brocken, the highest peak of Germany’s Harz Mountains. Since Saxon times, the region had a supernatural reputation; the gods were believed to manifest there on May Eve. With the advent of the Christian faith, the pagan celebration that had come to be known as Walpurgisnacht was truncated; the Church canonized the German goddess, creating her St. Walpurga, and moved her feast to February to discourage the orgiastic rituals that associated her with May. But this did little to discourage her followers, who continued to celebrate Walpurgisnacht, though in a decidedly less overt manner.
“If you love me, come discretely down to meet me, under the greenwood tree.”
The festivities of Walpurgisnacht give way to the light of the fires of Beltane, May 1st, the first day of summer in the Old Style calendars. Fire played a prominent role in Beltane celebrations; before the great bonfires were lit on the Celtic hills, the hearth-fire of every home was extinguished. Bearing faggots and torches from the great fires, folk would rekindle their hearths, reclaiming them from the darkness and recognizing the growing light of the summer sun.
It was common to choose a King and Queen to reign over the celebrations of May Day, but theirs was no tender love. Indeed, in May, “the lusty month of May,” romantic love, trysts, and sexual desire blossomed feverishly alongside Nature’s bountiful blooms. May’s association with sensuality and pleasure caused many minstrels to celebrate it as the month to “make much joy” – and the lush allure of greenery made a natural lover’s bower. On May Eve, men and women, noble and common alike, would venture into the greenwood to go “a-Maying,” and would spend the night out, making love in woods and fields.
“I have heard it credibly reported . . . that of fortie, threescore, or a hundred maides going into the woods over night, there have scaresly the third part of them returned home againe undefiled.”
“The Anatomie of Abuses,” Philip Stubbes, 1583.
The May Pole
No image comes more readily to mind when one thinks of May than that of people dancing joyfully around a flowered and beribboned May Pole.
In addition to gathering flowers from the woods, it was also the custom to bring back a young tree. Stripped of its branches, it would be set up in the midst of the village and decorated with flowers and long, flowing ribbons.
The May Pole was a powerful fertility symbol, representing the Sun God in the guise of Green Man, and embodying the spirit of growth and the promise of seed. Its placement in the earth – the phallus of the god into the mother’s womb – continued the highly-sexual imagery of May celebrations. Groups of dancers would circle the pole “sunwise” (or deosil), binding it about with the long ribbons, and “calling up the power” to strengthen it with dancing, singing, and drumming.
Old-style May Day celebrations included the march of a white-clad virgin, representing day and the bloom of summer (another incarnation of the goddess queen), accompanied by another female clad entirely in black, representing night and the dearth of winter. Fairs, mummer’s plays, milk and the rejuvenating waters of the new season were all celebrated in lore and superstition at this time of year. And fire, always fire, as the power of the sun increased and the wheel of the year turned toward the solstice of June.
Celebrating Saint Sara la Kali (May 25th)
In May, the Roma (Gypsies) everywhere, but particularly in Europe, celebrate their patron saint, Sara la Kali (or “Sara the Black”) with exceptional and genuine devotion, making pilgrimages to the saint’s famous French shrine.
Although never canonized, Sara has been venerated by the Roma at least since medieval times as the Gypsy woman who drew the three “Marys of the Sea” (Saintes Maries de la Mer, thought to be Mary the sister of Lazarus, Mary the mother of St. James and St. John, and Mary Magdalene) to safety from the waves after they had fled Palestine in the wake of Christ’s crucifixion. She is called “la Kali” because legend speaks of her origins on the coast of Egypt, where her skin was bronzed by the sun.
Each May, on her feast day, the statue of the saint is carried from its cave-like shrine in a great procession and held aloft to the gathering of pious Roma pilgrims. The statue is then carried to the spot on the French shore where the Roma believe the legendary meeting with the Three Marys took place. The statue is gingerly placed in the crashing surf where it is anointed and blessings are bestowed upon it before it is safely returned to its home. The solemnities are followed by great fanfare and celebrations among the Roma, often lasting for days.
For generations only the Roma were allowed to enter the shrine of St. Sara, making her the most personal of intercessors for a people generally bereft of advocates. Recently, however, the Roma-only rules were suspended and Gadje have been allowed access to the enclave of the Black Saint of the Gypsies.
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