If your idea of May Day is white dresses and flowers, you might be surprised by the uncut, unedited version of the holiday. A closer look takes you beyond bucolic Victorian imagery and reveals a history far more colorful than the ribbons on a maypole.

It's May, the lusty month of May,
That darling month when everyone throws self-control away.
It's time to do a wretched thing or two,
and try to make each precious day one you'll always rue.

Tra la, it's May, the lusty Month of May
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray
Tra la, it's here, that shocking time of year,
when tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear.
--Lyrics from the musical "Camelot"

What is May Day?

Traditional May Day celebrations were pre-Christian agricultural festivals that marked the transition between winter and summer. May Day in Europe was especially influenced by the Roman festival Floralia, and the Celtic fire festival, Beltane.

The Romans honored Flora, the goddess of spring, with dancing and feasting for six days, and prostitutes adopted Flora as their patron goddess. The customs of this fertility festival spread into Europe, and May became notorious as a month of sexual freedom. Marriage bonds were temporarily suspended for the month, and on May Eve itself, folks would spend the night "a-maying" in the woods, ostensibly gathering materials for the maypole dance the next day.

On May Day, revelers would sing and dance, weaving ribbons or colored streamers into a pattern around the central maypole. This spring rite was important enough that in cities like London, maypoles were permanent fixtures, though in the smaller villages a tree would be taken from the woods for the celebration.

And then there were Puritans

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
--Rudyard Kipling

Sleepovers in the woods and frolicking around the phallic maypole did not sit well with the Puritans. While these activities were sacred rites to Pagans, promiscuous sex, from the Puritan point of view, was a sin, and the British Parliament banned popular May Day festivities in 1644. A Puritan tract reveals their outrage at the customs of the time:

"Men and women and children, old and young and go off, some to the woods and groves, some to the hills and mountains, where they spend the night in pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birch-boughs and trees to deck their assemblies withal. I've heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity, credibility and reputation. That forty, three score, or a hundred youths, going to the woods over night. They have scarcely the third part of them, returned home again undefiled."
--Philip Stubbes
"Anatomy of Abuses"

While some complained such Christians "took the fun out of sex," in fact the Puritans may have unwittingly added a new dimension of titillation to the celebration, which could now be enjoyed as forbidden pleasure. But by the nineteenth century, the Victorians had thoroughly sanitized the May Day rites, divorcing May Day from the celebration of fertility entirely, and reinventing it as a holiday for children, emphasizing its innocence.

What is Beltane?

While the modern May Day celebration, particularly in the United States, seems a far cry from its ancient roots, the Celtic festival Beltane is enjoying a renaissance. Of the eight major Pagan holidays, or sabbats, Beltane is second (or even equal) in significance to Samhain--the Pagan New Year's celebration--for Wiccans and other modern Pagans. While Samhain marks the start of winter, Beltane occurs on the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year, falling at the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Many Pagans celebrate from sundown on April 30th to sundown on May 1st, or around May 5th, when the sun reaches 15 degrees Taurus.

Wiccans believe the union of the God and Goddess was consummated at Beltane, which meant new life for the land. The word "Beltane" means "bright fire," and may be associated with the Celtic sun god, Bel. To summon the life-sustaining forces of the sun and to purify the land for crops, symbolic bonfires were burned on the tops of hills in Ireland and Scotland from pre-Christian time and well into the 19th century. Modern-day Pagans in Scotland honor this tradition at the annual Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh.

More than sex

Today's Pagans will not all be frolicking in the woods on Beltane. Take a glimpse at what some Beliefnet members are planning.

"Beltane is about more than getting your rocks off. There is a much broader perspective to the holiday than crass displays of 'honoring our sexuality'. And while I find sex a perfectly wonderful and sacred thing, I also concern myself with the things that come with the start of summer, and having an appreciation for more than just getting personal sexual gratification."
"I plan to eat a lot of calorie rich things, soak up some sun, have a little fun roasting marshmallows and do a nice candle ritual..."
"How do YOU celebrate Beltaine? I have never celebrated it by having wanton sex...

My activities for this year include:
*A fruit and water giveaway to the homeless today.
*Ritual and a feast tomorrow including dancing the maypole
*Wednesday I will read to my children, do crafts, and attempt to teach them to dance the maypole again (this is the highlite of my Beltaine each year)."

How are you celebrating?

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