May Day 2012
Although I can’t be certain that the students who tossed homemade explosives from their dorm windows last night were actually partaking in ancient pagan tradition, I’d like to think that they were and that this event had nothing to do with the growing tensions on our campus. It’s May Day and when I first started conceiving this entry I thought it might be a more joyous affair, a celebratory epistle to the blogosphere of my emergence from the dark, lonely coldness of winter into the warm sun of spring flowers and bird song. And, in preparation, I revisited Geoffrey Chaucer’s description of May festivities in The Court of Love (1561):
And furth goth all the Court, both most and lest,
To feche the floures fressh, and braunche and blome;
And namly, hawthorn brought both page and grome.
With fressh garlandës, in partie blewe and white,
And thaim rejoysen in their greet delyt. (1431-35)
I love the way these lines emphasize the communal experience and the congregation and unity of those great and small, “most and lest.” As the remnants of winter melted away to reveal a green, living, blossoming landscape, Chaucer portrays a court that has laid aside difference and gathered to celebrate in shared delight.
However, one can’t dwell in idealism. There is more to May Day than flower garlands and festive dance. Alongside the fertility and beginning of the planting season that the festival marks, are also the associated aspects of purging and cleansing. In the Celtic Beltane Fire Festival, the rites of lighting sacred fires at the beginning of May served as a precaution against sinister forces, like witchcraft, that were thought to be particularly rampant at the beginning of summer. Similarly, during the Germanic Walpurgis Night, celebrated on the Eve of May Day, branches were tied to cattle and houses to keep witches away and fires were lit at the dawn to burn them out.
I imagine our merry pranksters were probably lighting things on fire in an effort to purge the demons of stress and the pressure witches that fight so fiercely by semester’s end. But let’s not forget that this could have been more. Let’s not forget that the tensions on campus between administrators and faculty are not just felt by them. Let’s not forget that bigotry and prejudice against those outside the religious, racial, political, or sexual majority affects us all. Our community is weakened when we dwell in difference. Let’s light the fires that burn out discrimination. Let’s annihilate the sinister force of hate with our fires of love.
This May, let’s commune together. Let’s gather to celebrate life and to purge darkness.
Works Cited & Consulted
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Vol. 7. Ed. Rev. Walter W. Skeat 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899. Print.James, E.O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961. Print.