May Day, The First Day of Summer

May Day comes at the sweetest time of year when everything is new and fresh, the air laden with fragrance, flowers blooming, the grass greening, the leaves on the trees just opening.

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In Gaelic traditions, May Day, also called Beltane, is the first day of summer, the midpoint between the fullness of spring at Equinox and the longest day of the year at Summer Solstice. It is the blending of these two energies, a time of fertility and embodiment, new life and ancient urges, birthing and growing.

This day has been celebrated in many northern cultures for hundreds of years with Beltane fires on the hilltops on the eve of May Day, dances around the May pole, and blessing ceremonies for the herds and crops.

My own experiences of May Day began when I was a child growing up in New England. We decorated little baskets with ribbons, filled them with flowers and gave them to our friends and neighbors. In the garden behind the house where I grew up, there were huge lilac trees and under them a wondrous carpet of purple and white violets. How I loved those violets and the joy of gathering them! Then there was the excitement of leaving the basket on the front porch of a neighbor, ringing the bell and running, so the neighbor wouldn’t know who had given them the basket. But I think they did know.

Much later in my life, I danced with my Shaman teacher Elizabeth Cogburn, then with the Earth Song Ceremonial Community here in Boulder, and for five years with a community I initiated in Durango. On the full moons, the quarter days (Equinoxes and Solstices) and the cross quarter days (Candlemas, May Day, Lammas, and All Hallows), we danced a form of long dance developed by Elizabeth.

My memories of May dances are very rich.

On the evening of April 30, we gathered, built a Beltane fire and jumped the fire. Jumping the fire was sort of scary for me the first time, as I dashed toward the knee-high blaze, leaped, and hoped to make it to the other side. Then it became pure fun—the edge of excitement, the moment of flying over the fire, the rush of heat up my legs, the safe landing on solid earth. We took turns drumming and jumping. Sometimes we jumped alone; sometimes with a beloved, holding the prayer that jumping together over the fire would deepen our bond; sometimes with a person with whom we’d had difficulty, asking the sacred fire to cleanse our dissonance.

One time when I was drumming for the fire jumping, a young man, stripped to the waist, did a handspring over the fire. Ah, the sheer beauty of that! His youth, his strength and agility, his bare skin shining in the firelight seemed to hold all the magic and potency of Beltane.

Another year, everyone gathered on Beltane eve at our house in the mountains. After the fire jumping, we all slept there together, the men in one part of the house, the women in my bedroom on mats laid edge to edge. I remember the delight of waking with all my sisters, dressing together, combing each other’s hair, adorning each other for the dance. Then stepping out into the sweet summer morning to weave the pole.

Weaving the pole was the most delightful of all. We set it up the day before with many colored ribbons attached at the top. We each brought our own ribbons in a color of our choosing and imbued them with our dreams and visions.

On May Day morning we started the drum and opened the dance. Then each one of us picked up the end of our ribbon. We formed two circles, one moving clockwise, one counterclockwise. Over and under we wove the ribbons, dancing, greeting each other as we passed. Toward the end it became something of a scramble as the ribbons grew short near the bottom of the pole and we had to duck low to get under them. Then the pole, brightly woven, soaring to the sky, set deep into the earth, stood at the center as we danced, rocked in the rhythm of the drum, through the long summer day until evening.

It has been many years since I danced on May Day. I don’t think I could jump the fire now. Our communities have dispersed.

But still I honor this day. I celebrate by walking barefoot outside, delighting in flowers and new leaves that are like flowers, feeling the juiciness of life force awakening all around and within me, communing with all that is luscious, alive, sweet, beginning.

How will you celebrate this wondrous time?

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