There are many things I associate with May, spring, tulips, lengthening days and cleaning the deck so I can spend more time outside. From a nostalgic viewpoint, I remember my grammar school’s international dance festival the first week of May. Each grade focused on a different part of the world. All winter we prepared for the festival. We learned a new dance, a bit about the countries culture, and made our costumes. I vividly remember how striking I looked in a serape when my class did a Mexican hat dance.
But the central dance, the one each class group did together was the Maypole. I can look back and laugh at the frustrated teachers when the weave of a pole wasn’t quite right and how, as students, we’d looked at the other poles to take some pride in the work we’d done and to see which pole came out the best before you went to the table for juice and cookies.
Years later, I learned the Maypole was one of the traditional symbols of Beltane. This celebration ushered in the fertility of spring to ensure the success of the crops and livestock. Beltane is a Fire Festivals. It’s very name originated with Celtic and Gaelic meaning’ bright one’ and ‘fire’, later translated to ‘Bright Fire’ or ‘Goodly Fire.’
The Druids believed Beltane divided the year in half. The other half ended with Samhain, Halloween, on November 1. The ancient rite of Beltane included dousing all existing fires and setting a new fire. This was in keeping with ancient New Year rites. The people believed fire gave life to the lengthening of the new springtime sun and purified crops and animals. Bonfires were lit side-by-side and cattle driven between them to purify them. Men and their sweethearts passed through the smoke for good fortune and to pledge themselves to each other. At the end of the evening, people would take some of the fire to their hearths to start a new fire for the coming year.
The festival began thousands of years ago. Villagers would go into the forest and cut down a tall birch tree. They’d insert the phallic pole into the earth representing the potency of the God. Young women made a ring of flowers for the top of the pole that represented the fertility of the Goddess. Colorful ribbons hung from the Maypole. Young people, each holding a ribbon, danced around the pole weaving in and out to create a sleeve of sorts, enveloping the womb of the earth around the pole. This symbolized the spiral of life and the union of the Goddess and God, Earth and Sky.
How does my mother figure into this post? Mom wasn't prudish but I remember when she, Dad and my older brother visited me at college in update New York. The town had been all abuzz with the new obelisk an artist had erected. I called it a phallic symbol. Mom asked, What does that mean?