Monday, May 1, 2017

May Day!

RHYS BOWEN: I was thinking about what to post today when I looked at the date and realized it was May Day. May Day doesn't mean much to most of us in America but when I was growing up it was a big thing in some English villages. I remember learning to dance around the maypole at my elementary school. It's not easy to make sure those ribbons don't get tangled up! And we crowned the Queen of the May.
 I was once in Padstow, Cornwall on May Day and they have the tradition of the hobby horse, or 'Obby 'Oss as it's called there. This sounds delightful but it's actually quite scary: a big black, round creature wearing a mask and pointed hat, and it's followed from house to house by a group of young dancers and musicians, all dressed in a red or blue bandanna. There are actually two 'Osses, the red horse and the blue horse and they cover different parts of the town.

The whole town is decked with flags and flowers. Only families who have lived in the town for two generations can participate. As it approaches each house there is some kind of ritual and everyone sings a song. It starts like this:
Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is acome unto day,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May.
Arise up Mr. ..... I know you well afine,
For summer is acome unto day,
You have a shilling in your purse and I wish it were in mine,
In the merry morning of May.
All out of your beds,
For summer is acome unto day,
Your chamber shall be strewed with the white rose and the red
In the merry morning of May.
It didn't actually sound like that. Quite disturbing, actually.  It sounded pagan and primitive almost in a language I didn't understand. And of course it is a continuation of an old Celtic festival. Beltane.

I"ve been to other festivals in May. In Helston, Cornwall, they have the floral dance, or flurrie dance. All the villagers form a chain and dance in and out of the houses in the town. I presume, like the hobby horse, to bring good luck or good crops or a good summer.

I've been in Tuscany and Umbria in May. In Orvieto at Pentecost there is a medieval procession and band and a cage comes zinging down a wire across the main square to the cathedral where it explodes in a mass of fireworks. A man climbs up to retrieve the little cage and we were horrified to find it contained a live dove which was then presented to the archbishop. A symbol of the holy spirit.
In Gubbio teams of men race up a mountain with forty foot wooden candles on their shoulders to a special chapel. In Cortona we witnessed a crossbow competition complete with medieval pagentry.
I should point out that none of the above were done for tourists, in fact in Cortona there were hardly any outsiders. They are all carrying on local tradition.

This is one thing I miss in America. I don't know about you New Englanders, but here in California there are few festivals. We have a couple of parades on July 4. The big Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco. St. Patricks Day in San Francisco, oh, and Carnival and Gay Pride. But local traditions don't exist. In England and Europe you will find quirky little festivals throughout the year. The pancake race, the rolling cheeses down the hill race, the procession of First Communion children on Corpus Christi, the blessing of the harvest. On the Continent they are often linked to saints' days or religious celebrations. In England mostly to village lore. But the good thing is that everyone participates wholeheartedly. It's a reaffirming of hundreds of years of culture. And I miss them.

So, Reds and Readers, are there any festivals near you? Did they ever celebrate May Day when you were growing up?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I agree, Rhys, that England has so many wonderful and quirky little celebrations. May Day and harvest festivals and cider festivals, and there is always that little spine-tingle of the pagan mixed in. I love Boxing Day, too, and what about the Scottish celebration of Hogmanay? Americans are sadly lacking, I fear, although most towns smaller towns in our part of the country make a big deal of the 4th of July, with parades and ice-cream competitions and chili cook-offs. Cinco de Mayo is a big deal in most parts of Texas, too.

JENN MCKINLAY: Rhys, I do remember making May Day baskets and leaving them on neighbor's front doors. It was so much fun to ring the bell or knock and run to hide behind a nearby tree and watch my mom or Mrs. Graham, my favorite neighbor, open the door and smile at the clump of wildflowers my brother and I had smashed into a paper doily cone fitted with a fuzzy pipe cleaner handle. At the time I thought they were spectacular displays but I'm guessing they were probably more enthusiastic than pretty. In Phoenix-Scottsdale, we have a lot of festivals that celebrate everything from Dia de los Muertos to the famous Parada del Sol horse parade to the annual Native American hoop dancing competition. I often hear that the desert has no culture. I couldn't disagree more. Our culture is a multicultural appreciation of our ethnic diversity and it is fabulous.

HALLIE EPHRON: No May Day festivals here... soon, though, Strawberry festivals when Strawberries come in.

When I was in elementary school we had a May Day school-wide dance performance, each grade doing a different dance, and sixth graders got to dance around the May Pole, weaving the ribbons over and under and over and under. I loved it so much.

Fourth of July is the big deal here in Boston, and worth a special trip if you can tolerate crowds.

INGRID THOFT: One of the things that I love about “Midsomer Murders” is that there’s often a fete going on in the village that somehow ties into the mystery.  As a result, DCI Barnaby has an extremely high fete attendance rate.

One festival that I hadn’t known of before we moved to Seattle is Hempfest.  Every August, a beautiful park on the Sound is taken over for all things hemp.  The official mission is to “educate the public on the myriad benefits offered by the cannabis plant.”  That may be, but the scent of marijuana emanates from that corner of the city for the whole weekend (not that different from Seattle these days).  The festival itself doesn’t bother me, but I’m always sad that our beautiful park gets trampled, only to regrow and be trampled anew the next August.  “You kids get off my lawn!”

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  May celebrations? You know, in TV, May is the big ratings month. It's called "the book. (That has a lot of subtext in our novel-world, but it means the May Ratings Book. And nothing about that my novel is also due May 1.) Anyway. The ratings the station gets in May set the ad rates for months to come. So for the last forty years, every May, I work every minute of every day on my TV stories to make them irresistible to viewers. Is it nice weather? I have no idea. I am big on celebrating June. The festival of "the rating book is over."
But! Our tulips are life-affirmingly wonderful.

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh Jenn, we used to make those May Day baskets too, in New Jersey. I have no idea how that tradition started! If you want festivals and events, you must come to Key West. Honestly, there is something happening every single week! This week as we left, the town was celebrating Conch Republic days, to commemorate the time the town decided to secede from the US in 1982. This happened because the US Border Patrol had set up a check point in Florida City to inspect all traffic going on and off the islands. (Hmmm, this is starting to sound familiar!)

You can read more about it here:

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I seem to recall those May Day baskets, but I don't know if I actually participated as a child or just heard about the tradition. My children, now, all of whom went to parochial school in their early years, have many memories of May Day, which is still a BIG thing in Catholic elementary schools. There was a parade, and a couple of kids (presumably the most well-behaved that week) took a floral wreath and crowned a large statue of Our Lady. They sang, as I recall, "Bring Flowers of the Fairest" - "O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May."

Of course, the Marian devotion is, as Debs and Rhys notes, the Christianized version of the ancient Beltane celebrations of fertility and abundance. It's a shame so many places have lost touch with these sorts of traditions that stretch back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I suppose in a non-agricultural society, we just don't share the joy and gratitude of our ancestors at surviving the winter and returning to the season of warmth and food and light. Although here in New England we get pretty close at times...
RHYS: Oh yes, Julia. My children at Catholic kindergarten had a May procession with the best-behaved girl chosen to crown the statue of Mary. Needless to say none of my kids was ever chosen!__._,_.___

So who else remembers May Day traditions? Or other folksy festivals? And happy May Day everyone! Imagine that the Jungle Red Writers have left a cone of flowers on all your doorsteps!


  1. I have vague recollections of making May baskets and of one time that we danced around a Maypole. Since I taught in a Catholic school for a couple of years, I’m also familiar with the lovely Queen of the May celebration.

    There’s not a lot of festivals around here although the Seaport organizes a few special festival activities for the community each year. And I have to admit that their Bacon Festival was fun . . . .

  2. I don't remember May baskets, but I do remember dancing around a Maypole one year. I think we must have made such an awful knot that it never happened again. I too went to Catholic school so had May processions. My favorite holiday celebration though was Memorial Day. Our school had a War Monument on campus and every year on Memorial Day we would have a procession and cover the monument in fresh flowers of remembrance. It seemed that most of the town would turn out and we always had an VA honor guard. Since our schools didn't end until mid-June the service did double duty as an introduction to the end of the school year as well.

  3. I hung out with some folky/bluegrassy types in grad school, and went with them to a May Day party. Morris dancers brought up the sun and there was much drinking, starting at 5 am. Very festive, but the rest of the day was spent in a stupor! We also made May baskets for flowers when I was young (in southern California). To experience Carnaval in Brazil is a wonderous thing, and I also miss that kind of festival in the US. When I lived in Japan there were a number of festivals, particularly O-bon (I think that was what it was called), the summer festival. Also not for tourists, just because they had always done it.

  4. Thanks for the posies! They're lovely. Hope you liked the ones I left for you, as well.

    Yes, we made a big deal out of May Day when I was a Midwestern Catholic child. The older girls vied to be chosen as Queen of the May, so they could lead the procession to Mass while wearing their virginal white dresses, flower wreaths on their hair, and carrying​ more flowers, up to the altar of the Blessed Mother. Naturally, by the time I was in eighth grade they had stopped doing it. Which was just as well, really. But I used to help my daughters make posy baskets from our elderly next door neighbor, and for their grandmother. I still have the urge to go out and pick a bouquet on the first of May.

    Cincinnati, in mid to late September, becomes Zinzinnati, harking back to our heavily German heritage, and we have one of the largest Oktoberfest celebrations outside of Munich. People wear lederhosen and dirndls, and chicken hats, and break out into spontaneous, beer-fueled chicken dances whenever they hear a polka band. Of which there are many. In case you somehow missed this, Cincinnati was the site of the world's largest chicken dance. So now you know. Come visit sometime during the three-day festival, and I'll treat you to a potato pancake, or a Bahama Mama (enormous sausage thing), or a big Solo cup of one of our many fine locally brewed beers. Cincinnati has a long tradition of brewing, so there's lots to choose from.

    The Fourth of July is a big deal, right? Not as big a deal as it is in the middle of the country. When I was a kid we ate potato salad and hot dogs, and maybe had a few minutes of fireworks. But when our kids were small we often spent that time of their summer vacation at a family member's lake cabin in rural Nebraska. The lake is a mile long, really a borrow pit next to the Platte River that some enterprising soul turned into a ski lake in the forties. It used to be ringed with tiny, seasonal cabins, the kind where everyone's castoff furniture, dishes, and old towels go when they get replaced. (Now those are nearly all replaced with much larger, year round homes, including our family's.) On the third, fourth, and sometimes fifth of July, fireworks are legal in the state. The locals parade around the ring road, wearing head to toe red, white and blue, walking, skateboarding, bicycling, or riding a myriad of vehicles, including their golf carts, all bedecked with exuberant patriotic-ish frooferaws. And they throw candy at those standing by to watch the parade. They circle the lake as many times as the walkers' legs hold out. It's so Americana you can't believe that kind of thing still exists.

    Rhys, the Corpus Christi parade we saw in Italy was a higher level, by a factor of ten, than the procession we had in the fifties here. It's an experience I'll never forget. I'm so glad we all went back that evening to see it.

  5. I just said "Happy 1st of May" to Julie when she came down for her coffee. She remembered parochial school and the May Pole. This wasn't of my experience though.

    When I was very small, long ago and faraway, I looked forward to May Day much the same as Valentine's Day. These were the war years, and my mother and I lived with my grandparents in Wetmore, KS, population 200. Or 199 or 201, depending on who had died or been born in the night.

    We had everything we needed except money. The garden was full of spring blooms, iris and spirea and pansies and hollyhocks and lilacs and mock orange. My grandmother brought out scissors and rolls of old wallpaper and paste. She helped me make little paper cones and stick on the handles. We picked much of the flower bounty, filling each basket. Then I was off and running. I would hang a basket on a door knob, knock hard because certainly no one had bells, run and hide, but not very successfully! It was a joyous time, seeing Miss Scott and Miss Lizzie peer around the threshold and spy the May Basket. I hoped old Percy Worthy wasn't home because he scared me, but Grandma said that every neighbor must have a basket. My favorite was Auntie Maude who taught first and second grade, and Father Germaine who lived across the road next to the Catholic Church and who showed up for dinner more than Grandpa liked.

    It was such a different time. Now who would send a four year old unattended to knock on doors?

    I loved hearing your stories, and I'm off to find a vase and take my neighbor some tulips.

    May Day
    By Helen Whitney Clark
    Excerpted from Good Housekeeping, May, 1889

    The sky is all dappled with azure and white,
    The woodlands are dotted with posies,
    The blue-headed larkspur looks smiling and bright,
    And the butterfly flirts with the roses.
    And jack-in-the-pulpit is nodding his head,
    While the honey bees cheerily hum;
    The oriole swings in his snug hammock bed,
    And the robin sings May-day has come!

  6. Rochester has festivals every month of the year, often more than one. Some are juried art fetes, and others are all about the food, like the Greek Festival. In two weeks there is the Lilac Festival in Highland Park. This draws 500,000 people from all over the country to see and smell 500 different varieties of lilacs. The whole city is fragrant!

    1. My sister lived in Rochester for decades, until they retired and headed for the sun, and my parents were there too for awhile in their old age. We have been there for Lilac Festival. Wonderful!

  7. Nothing for May Day in my part of Maine, but in the summer there seems to be a local festival every weekend in some small rural or coastal town--blueberry, lobster, and the like, and of course the annual Moxie Festival. And later in the year there are several pumpkin festivals and the December celebrations in Farmington for Chester Greenwood Day, honoring the man who invented earmuffs.
    Kathy, still in Bethesda but about to head home

  8. I vaguely remember making paper May Day baskets in elementary school, coloring in the flowers. And a Maypole on the playground. All of the usual holidays are quite festive here--there's still a Memorial Day parade (the high school band has to hustle--they serve two towns) and I cry every single time I see them at the local memorials. Summer, though, is full of festivals. Every town has a weekend staked out for a festival of something or other. A Strawberry Festival for a neighboring town is the first, I think. We do a Basket Festival--the town's first industry was a basket maker--the business had over a hundred years' run, but sadly closed several years ago. The festival carries on though. Another town has a Melon Festival, there's the Woolly Bear Festival--and every festival has a parade and picks a queen--and all of the festival queens go to each parade to represent their own town. The high school bands get plenty of chances to practice their marching skills, there's always good food, and the festivals are great for families.

  9. I know about the maypole dancing although I've never done it. Just as well - with my coordination (or lack thereof) it would have been a total disaster.

    My kids are Catholic school vets too, so yeah, we did the whole crowning of Mary thing. My daughter was not chosen - despite being NAMED Mary. They picked the teacher's pet. Of course. I don't remember her being all that upset, actually. And my son didn't care, of course.

    I think festivals are common where there are big ethnic concentrations. For example Dyngus Day is big in Buffalo, where there are a lot of Polish. The day after Easter, the girls take pussy willows and hit the boys they are sweet on. Or something like that.

    The Fourth is big here in Pittsburgh. Also Oktoberfest because of a) the large German-descent population and b) the big craft/local beer industry.

    I was in St. Croix in 1996 for Three Kings Day. The parade was gigantic. So much fun to watch.


  10. Aaron, you made it home? Or where are you? Tell about your tale of woe!

    Kathy, so great to see you at malice !

    And I always wanted to dance around a may pole , it seems like it might be actually very difficult! Anyone know?

  11. Yes Karen, I've been worrying about you too. And missed everyone at Malice

  12. Isn't it sad that our simple and innocent world has vanished

  13. Bring Flowers of the Rarest

    Verse 1

    Bring flow'rs of the fairest, bring flow'rs of the rarest,
    From garden and woodland and hillside and vale.
    Our full hearts are swelling, our glad voices telling
    The praise of the loveliest, Rose of the vale.

    Verse 2

    Our voices ascending, in harmony blending.
    Oh! thus may our hearts turn dear Mother, to thee.
    Oh! thus shall we prove thee how truly we love thee,
    How dark without Mary life's journey would be.

    Verse 3

    O Virgin most tender, our homage we render.
    Thy love and protection, sweet Mother, to win.
    In danger defend us, in sorrow befriend us,
    And shield our hearts from contagion and sin.


    O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
    Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.
    O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today,
    Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

  14. Couldn't resist offering the entire song --- so beautiful. For Catholic school children, the May Procession (not "parade") was the highlight of the year. We wore pastel dresses, and -- yes -- it was a special honor to crown the statue of Mary. At my school, we had a grotto, a replica of Lourdes. Many happy memories of May.

    At my granddaughters' school there is a May Day, with a maypole dance --- each class performs a traditional song and dance (multiculturally traditional).

    I love May. And the song from CAMELOT!!

    1. Oh,Denise, I love that Camelot song, too!

    2. Denise, what a beautiful song! Thank you for sharing ( and remembering it!)

  15. What I consider one of the best parts of a festival is it being held outside your front door, as in small villages or towns where you can walk to it or it encompassing the community streets and residences and places of business. Walking out of your hotel to it would be okay, too, as in Key West. Lucy, that's one of the aspects of Key West that appeals to me the most, staying in Old Town and walking to everything. One of the reasons I'm drawn to books set in England and Scotland are the festivals and community culture. Debs, you create this wonderful feeling of community even in London, with your focus on different areas that are small communities within the larger one.

    When I was growing up, we had what was called Court Day downtown, and being in a small town, there was a great community feeling. Booths with food and wares were set up, and there were such things as the hog-calling contest and local music, along with some speeches by local dignitaries. School was dismissed for the day, so it was a day and night long celebration for us all.

    We have an Apple Festival where I live now, but you have to drive out to it and park in a field. There are carnival rides, but that's not a local business. There are lots of vendors with their crafts, which is the part I enjoy the most, and food vendors, of course. It's fun, but, again, it's not so much a community feeling, nothing to mark it as an age-old custom.

  16. Reading all these recollections makes me a bit sorry I didn't grow up in Catholic schools with May Day celebrations. Or in an English village--even better!!!

    Now I feel I should pick something to celebrate. Our tulips are long gone and our iris just finished. Maybe I can find a few roses that survived the weekend's storms here in north Texas. But after Saturday's storms and the terrible tornadoes to the east of us, and yesterday's blistering winds, today is a perfect May 1st. Crisp, still, clear, with a predicted high in the mid-seventies. Happy May Day, everyone!

  17. Unfortunately, May Day in Seattle has taken on a very negative meaning. We have peaceful anti-war and immigrants' rights marches during the day, but at night, the anarchists come out. These are generally young men in their twenties who wear masks, smash windows, and fight with the police. Everyone knows to batten down the hatches on May Day. What a bummer!

    1. I had no idea this was happening in Seattle. A good night to stay in, for sure.

    2. Here in Portland, OR too. Today there was a "May Day Freedom March" which was raided by The Anarchists (their name for themselves) who turned it into a riot and there was much damage, injury, looting and a department store set afire. Seems May Day has become March & Destroy day. Terrible.

  18. You guys are so sweet, thanks for your concern. I just stopped for lunch in West Virginia, so I still have about 350 miles to go. No problems, so far!

    Wow, I was worried about the length of my post above, so I'm glad to see others reminiscing just as broadly.

    Things have changed in some places, true, but not everywhere, thank goodness.

    Reading the above reminds me of the historic festival near our farm every October. The Pendleton County Wool Festival used to celebrate many aspects of country life, including the former sheep industry in the area. Now, though, there are more alpacas raised down there than sheep. They still have shearing demonstrations, as well as soapmaking, candlemaking, spinning and weaving, and the most fascinating so far to me, sorghum cooking. (It's a hot, dangerous job.) Of course, there are also huge tents full of crafts of all kinds, and fantastic fair food. Like baskets of curly fried potatoes, hot dogs, smoked meats, cotton candy, and enormous turkey legs. I just learned they aren't turkey legs, at all. I think they're emu, or something. But they're mighty tasty, and big enough to share. The best part, though, is running into longtime friends!

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  20. Happy May Day! Coincidentally, my neighbor brought me a plant with the most beautiful pink blooms. I thought it was very timely!

  21. We sometimes had a Maypole at Ren. Faire. Sweet tradition. It is also a traditional day to celebrate workers. I went searching for May Day IWW music and instead found a bit of activism that made me a bit nostalgic for activist days in Minneapolis.
    Familiar streets . . .

  22. Happy May Day, Rhys! I grew up reading books with descriptions of May Day celebrations in England, though I lived in the U.S. and South America. This, I think, helped me acquire an early taste for pageantry and tradition. For some years I lived in London, and thoroughly enjoyed learning the history behind each celebrated occasion, everything so carefully carried on through generations. And now I live in the Washington, D.C. area. If you want festivals in the U.S., you must come to live here! There are so many fairs and festivals, I don't think I can remember them all. (And I am not including the marches and demostrations!) We've just had the Cherry Blossom Festival that lasts for nearly a month, after variations of a Chocolate Festival, one especially held at the American Indian Museum; there is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that lasts for about ten days, on the National Mall, each year in late June and early July, always with one or more different themes (my favorite was the 2002 Silk Road Smithsonian Folklife Festival) when absolute miracles of foreign structures are built seemingly overnight on the mall just for this festival. There is always something happening here, which suits me. The merrier, the more people, the better!

    1. Oh, Mary, a Chocolate Festival! How I would love that!

      Deb Romano

  23. No May Day celebrations around me that I know of. I tend not to care about any "holidays" that don't involve a big meal or a gift. Unless it is National Cheeseburger Day.

    As for something that I do celebrate in May is Upfront Week for the TV networks. When they announce the shows and schedule for the fall.

    I prepare for that like it is the NFL draft. I've got a chart made up and I fill it in each day when a network announces their planned programming slate with the shows that I watch or look interesting enough for me to want to check out.

    After the five networks have announced, I have to go back over the chart to figure out the conflicts. That is the when I have more than one show on in a given timeslot. What will I watch live, what will I watch on On Demand.

    And I'm always celebrating my TV Junkie status while I do this.

    Sigh...I need a life...

    (Beyond that, May isn't much of a month for me)

  24. Julia and Rhys,
    I was one of the best behaved little girls chosen to crown Our Lady, when I was in second grade. I had to wear my First Communion outfit. I felt so honored.

  25. Most of the festivals in the Portland Oregon area seem to be about either flora or food. Blueberry Festival, Tulip Festival, Rose Festival is a huge one, with a parade and competitions for growers. The Rhododendron Festival is in two weeks, I think. Also the Garden shows/sales are starting. Also there are the Taste of Portland, Brewers' Festival, there's a Hemp Festival here as in Seattle, and there is the State Fair, Fourth of July, of course, and a big pumpkin festival in the Fall. Lots to do, not even including the Blues Festival, Jazz Festival, Bluegrass Festival and Country Music Festival. Whew.

  26. I grew up in California. I remember the maypole dance when I was a kid. The local public school had a celebration of many cultures, including the maypole dance.

    For some funny reason, when I was reading this post about May Day and Queen of May Day, I thought of a photo I saw in a biography about Candice Bergen. In high school or college, she was elected Queen of May Day.

    The immigrant day/ worker's day celebration on May 1st, to my best recollection, did not start until recently or perhaps it gets more publicity especially in this political climate?

    Someone commented about fetes in Midsomer Murders. And someone commented about festivals in Europe. I love Midsomer Murders, It is one of my favorites. The mention of festivals in Europe reminded me of the Rick Steves travel programmes where the festivals often are highlights of the show.

  27. In California, I wonder if small towns like Solvang have festivals. We have Chocolate Festival in San Francisco. We will have a Bay Area Book Festival in June.

  28. I hope I could have chance to visit the town in May Day next year, looks so great! Thank you for sharing!