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May Day

Author John Cech
Air Date 5/1/2000

May Day Transcript

Brief sound clip from Allen Ginsberg’s version of “The Echoing Green.”

That’s the late, great, beat poet, Allen Ginsberg with friends singing a part of their 1969, slightly off-key version of one of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence”–the “Echoing Green.” An appropriate song for the first of May.

The first of May is a time for celebrating nature’s renewal that stretches back, and back. The Romans held a flower festival in honor of the goddess Flora in the spring time. One of the earliest references we have of people skipping rope comes from ancient Rome, where the practice was thought to be part of a game that young people would play to encourage the growth of crops in the coming summer–the higher you jumped over the rope–which was made of flowers–the taller your wheat would be. The month of May itself is named after the Greek Goddess Maya, the mother of the child god Hermes, the little sprout who is full of mischief and magic–he’s the creative life force, and he rejuvenates a played-out Olympus.

In Western Europe in the middle ages, May Day celebrations were the most joyful and spirited of the year. In England, homes were decorated with flowers, trees were carried in from the forest and set up in village greens as May poles around which the whole community danced, weaving garlands of flowers together. As a token of their love, boys in Germany and Switzerland would plant trees outside the windows of the maidens they were madly in love with. Young people in English villages selected a king and queen of the May who ruled over the day’s festivities, dressed like Robin Hood and Maid Marion, while the Morris dancers, bells jingling, told the story of the noble thief. Others collected hawthorne branches for good luck and protection of the home–but you had to be careful with hawthorne to leave it outside the house, and not to sit under it–it was said that, if you did, the fairies would weave a spell around you. In America, in the towns that survived the Puritan disapproval of May Day festivals, children still make May baskets from paper, fill them with flowers, and hang them from the doorknobs of friends and family on the morning of May Day. And if you go to the Cornish town of Padstow on May 1st, they still perform that ancient galloping dance with that mysterious creature, the hobbyhorse–thank goodness…and Maia.

Posted in Holidays, Poetry