Beltane/MayDay: A Holiday for Pagans and Workers



Introduction (May Day 2019)


In the Western world, May Day is celebrated on the 1st day of May. However, as we all know, there are actually two different celebrations or commemorations of May Day. There is the seasonal one for Spring, based upon the traditional older one, celebrated for thousands of years in the ancient past by Celtic peoples, called Beltane, which is the annual seasonal festival that marks the full-flowering of Spring and the beginning of Summer, with undertones of a pagan nature religion and its fertility rite. Then there’s the socio-political May Day observance, which only goes back to the nineteenth-century international worker’s struggle, workers who decided to hold their commemoration on the traditional May Day festival. Thus, the question has been asked by journalists as to whether May Day is a Spring festival or a worker’s holiday. Here, in this musical essay series, the Gypsy Scholar answer is it’s actually both.

In other words, if (as argued in last week’s musical essay) the ancient Roman festival of flowers, called Floralia, which honored the goddess of flowers, Flora, and the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, is the prototype of May Day, then it could be said that both the pagan’s May Day and the worker’s May Day are actually twin flowers with a common root—a green and red root. (And it is not for nothing that the lyrics to what became the worker’s and women’s movement’s theme song of the early twentieth century, “Bread and Roses,” unequivocally declare: “As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead / Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread; Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew / Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.” Thus, the GS pointed out, in last week’s musical essay, flowers figure in both the seasonal and the socio-political May Days. The rose flower, the symbol of erotic love and the beloved for the twelfth-century troubadours and thirteenth-century romance poets, was sacred to Venus-Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. This same rose came to stand for the aesthetic side of the worker’s and women’s struggle, which was at that time mainly made up of the Anarchists, who adopted the symbol of the “black rose.”)

May Day, the political observance, goes back to the 1886 Chicago Haymarket strike and subsequent riots. In that year, beginning on 1 May, there was a five-day general strike for the 8-hour workday. It climaxed three days later with the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of workers. In 1891, May Day was designated “International Workers’ Day” by the Anarchists, Socialists, and Communists of the Second International to commemorate the infamous May 4, 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. According to the Sixth Conference of the Second International of 1904, workers were supposed to “demonstrate energetically on May 1 for the legal establishment of the 8-hour workday, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”

The other kind of May Day, the one celebrating the rebirth of Spring and fecundity with flowers and maypoles, is a lot older. May Day is a public holiday in many places and is usually celebrated on May 1st. It is an ancient northern hemisphere Spring festival and a traditional Spring holiday in many cultures. May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. Dancing, singing, and drinking are usually part of the joyous festivities. Again (as pointed out in last week’s musical essay), May Day probably goes back to ancient Roman festivals, specifically Floralia and Maiuma. Moreover, while much of Europe went in for May Day during the Middle Ages into the pre-modern period, it was always suspect because it had a somewhat disreputable, pagan essence. During these May Day festivities, drinking and carousing were winked at, and local maidens let down their hair and bedecked themselves with flowers. The central focus of the observance, maypole itself, carried an association with sacred trees, and thus had Druid overtones. Also suspect was the blatant sexual (i.e., phallic) associations. The best-known modern May Day traditions, observed both in Europe and North America, include dancing around the maypole and crowning the Queen of the May. Historically, Morris dancing is part of the festivities in British May Day observances. The earliest records of maypole celebrations date to the fourteenth century and, by the fifteenth century, the maypole tradition was well established in southern Britain. In the late twentieth century, many neopagans began reconstructing some of the older pagan festivals and combining them with more recently developed Celtic and Germanic traditions. Thus, for neopagan groups, such as Wiccans, May Day or “Beltane” is celebrated as a pagan religious festival.

As annual calendar dates, each of these two May Days is essential in the life of the people and worthy of recognition and commemoration, but it would be too much to try to adequately cover both in the limited time of one program. Given this, the GS has decided to present a series of musical essays on May Day and begin with the ancient seasonal May Day, particularly that of the old Celtic countries called “Beltane.” That said, the GS must assure disappointed listeners, who would prefer hearing about the socio-political May Day, that this doesn’t mean it will be ignored. Indeed, the GS is going to attempt to make an important historical and cultural connection between the two May Days. In other words, the GS is going to come at the socio-political May Day from another angle—but not right away. A statement of connection right off the bat would sound like a bit of a stretch before developing the ecstatic pagan origins of our seasonal May Day and, thus, the deeper implications of the international workers consciously choosing the put their holiday on the old seasonal May Day. In other words, the proposed connection between the two May Days will only have a chance at making sense if we first grasp why the seasonal May Day festival, which featured the crowning of a May Queen, a guild-type parade with Jack-in-the-Green, and dancing around a maypole, was finally outlawed by the Puritans in the 1600s.

Therefore, the GS will attempt to present a brief picture of the origins and meanings of both May Days, and in doing so (a) acknowledge the beginning of the Summer season through the traditional Celtic holiday of “Beltane,” (b) acknowledge the international working-class holiday of “May Day,” and (c) demonstrate how these two separate holidays, each commemorated on the same day, actually have a common origin—an origin centered around the ancient maypole. In the final analysis, the GS hopes, in bringing to light the ecstatic pagan origins of our seasonal May Day, that the more profound implications of the pan-national worker’s organization consciously choosing to put their holiday on the old seasonal May Day will become apparent to listeners rather than, as has long been assumed, a mere historical coincidence.

In this series of musical essays, then, the GS explores both holidays, not as two unrelated and culturally separated special calendar days, each concerned with its own aspect of life that only coincidentally share the same name and date, but instead as two interrelated festival days on the Spring calendar that share: (a) an historical and cultural matrix of what’s become the synecdoche “the world turned upside down” (a revolutionary term to identify the common peoples’ desire for liberation from social hierarchy and their attempts at inverting such); (b) an historical nexus of continuity, beginning with ancient “pagan festivals” (and adapted medieval “Christian festivals” that smacked too much of “paganism”) and finally morphing into the late medieval and early modern (ca. 1400 – 1800) “carnivalesque” festivals (seasonal festivals of Spring, whose unruly revels developed a “political edge” of rebellious underclass groups and movements, which were not satisfied with overturning the king and installing “The Lord of Misrule” just for one socially sanctioned crazy holiday but began to dream of liberation on a permanent basis, and not just for a few festive hours); (c) a universal rallying symbol in the form of the maypole.

Thus, the GS will attempt to show that what began in Celtic countries BCE as “Beltane” and imported in Roman times (from 43 CE, as the Romans came to occupy the British Isles) as a Spring fertility festival to the goddesses Flora and Maia, then into the European middle ages as “May Day,” became, in the early modern period, rowdy “carnivalesque” festivals, and by the nineteenth century became celebrated under the banner of “International Workers’ May Day.” In short, the GS finds the historical connecting link between the pagan-fertility celebration of Beltane/MayDay and the socio-political worker’s celebration of May Day in the late medieval and early modern communal festivals that social historians have termed “carnivalesque,” festivals that threatened to invert the social hierarchy and “turn the world upside down.”

In anticipation of this proposed connection between the two May Days, the GS is attempting such because he believes the old pagan festival held to welcome Spring and Summer in, which featured the crowning a May Queen, a guild-type parade with Jack-in-the-Green, or the Green Man, and dancing around a maypole, morphed into a festival with threatening socio-political overtones, which was finally outlawed in the 1600s by the Puritans. After all, when the British Puritan government outlawed public manifestations of “communal pleasure” around the maypole, this meant that participating in such “carnivalesque” demonstrations was, by definition, “political”—i.e., the collective expression of joy by the common people was transformed into a political act. As the May Day celebrations, from the pre-modern period to the modern (the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries) became more threatening to the powers that be, they took on the mantle of “the day of misrule.” This collective “day of misrule,” beginning in the sixteenth century, has since earned the classification of “carnivalesque,” a term used by scholars of the late medieval and early modern periods to denote art or activities that convey a sense of social transgression from ancient times to the present day. Historically speaking, carnivalesque carnivals were used to overturn traditional hierarchies and mix the culture of high authorities with those of the lower, “profane culture” of the common people or the so-called “peasants.”

That being said, we can actually look further back in history for earlier examples of this phenomenon of commoner’s or peasant’s “day of misrule.” As I discussed last week, the origin of May Day is to be found in the Roman holiday of “Floralia,” which was the earliest known May celebration. Floralia, the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, was held from the 27th April to the 3rd of May during the Roman Republic era. A twin festival of the same nature was Maiuma,  a festival celebrating Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, which was held every three years during the month of May. It was known as the Maiuma because it is celebrated in the month of “May-Artemis.” Celebrated at least as early as the 2nd century CE, the Maiuma was a “nocturnal dramatic festival, held every three years and known as ‘Orgies,’ that is, the Mysteries of Dionysus and Aphrodite.” It was a thirty-day festival of “all-night revels,” with splendorous banquets and offerings. These wild and ecstatic Roman festivals can be linked with the equally rowdy pre-modern May Day festivities because they both were eventually subject to state repression. In point of fact, the Maiuma’s reputation for licentiousness caused it to be suppressed during the reign of “First Christian Emperor,” Constantine, in the 4th century CE, though a less debauched version of it was briefly restored during the reigns of emperors Arcadius and Honorius, only to be suppressed again during the same period. Thus, we can see that public “misrule” on May Day has a long history, as pre-modern May Day became a time when an oppressed population, with no other way to express their deep-seated grievances, lashed out against church and state power. (This historical information should not be lost on Santa Cruzans. May Day 2010 witnessed thousands of protesters across the U.S. making their voices loud and clear while staging May Day rallies. In the city of Santa Cruz and on the UCSC campus these May Day rallies turned into what the press called “anarchy and riot.” On the night of Saturday, May 1st, there was a dance party to mark International Workers’ Day, which began at the Clock Tower in downtown Santa Cruz. During the event, around 250 people roved through the streets in a mixture of dancing, partying and protesting. A smaller number of people, some wearing masks or bandanas on their face, carried torches, spray painted graffiti, broke windows at an estimated 18 downtown businesses, and caused an estimated $100,000 in damages. In addition, a police squad car that responded was reportedly pelted with rocks, surrounded, and paint was poured on the hood. This outbreak of violence is why the Santa Cruz authorities have suppressed any future May Day festivities. So, it looks like these anarchic Santa Cruz May Day protestors are actually part of a long tradition.) [This is simply stated as a historical fact and should not be interpreted as the GS condoning such violent behavior.]  

With this historical missing link between the two May Days, we will be in a position to understand the international observance of the workers’ May Day from a fresh perspective. It also will provide an adequate sense of why the GS will eventually, in this musical essay series, introduce progressive political writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about the “Collective History of Joy” and the issue of the historical May Day repression; an authoritarian repression—at once instinctual and political—of the communal phenomenon she calls “Dancing In the Streets.”

This governmental repression (during the pre-modern era) of pagan delight for its own at the beginning of the Summer season amounted to a war on communal pleasure. This historical Puritan repression would be just second-hand information and the verdict about it mere theory if it were not for the fact that centuries later the same phenomenon of “collective joy” was revived, and along with it came the long shadow of America’s deep-seated puritanism. The GS is here referring to the communal phenomenon of the mass demonstrations of the 1960s, from the anti-war rallies to the Human Be-Ins, of which the “Summer of Love” is the most famous. Participating in such communal demonstrations—complete Yippie street theater, outlandish costumes, outpourings of flowers, and rock-band music—often made one wonder: is this a “political” rally, or is it a “love-in”?

For example, at that time political activists and countercultural flower children (“hippies”) were both anti-authoritarian, suspicious of the government, rejecting of the conformist and materialist values of modern life, and opposed the Vietnam War. Furthermore, generally speaking, both groups emphasized, egalitarianism, decentralization, and community. Although there was a general ideological divide along the lines of politics and poetry (or spirituality), both groups often came together with their concern for politics on the one hand and with concern with art (music, poetry, painting, and etcetera) or spiritual and meditative practices on the other hand. The first Human-Be-In, held in Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967, was announced by the Haight-Ashbury's hippie newspaper, the San Francisco Oracle: “A new concept of celebrations beneath the human underground must emerge, become conscious, and be shared, so a revolution can be formed with a renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love, and the revelation of unity for all mankind.” By Spring of the same year, some Haight-Ashbury residents formed the “Council of the Summer of Love,” giving the event a name, the famous “Summer of Love.” (Musician John Phillips of the band The Mamas & the Papas wrote the song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” for his friend Scott McKenzie. It served to promote both the Monterey Pop Festival that Phillips was helping to organize and to popularize the hippie flower children of San Francisco. Released on May 13, 1967, the song was an instant success.) Thus, it appears that these Sixties “flower children” (a) unknowingly reenacted the ancient Roman festival of Floralia and Maiuma (on the other hand, it now seems that the ancient Roman revelers in these festivals went full-on hippie) and (b) unknowingly revived the medieval and pre-modern festivals of May Day.

Therefore, it is the argument of this series of musical essays for Beltane/MayDay that the two different May Day celebrations we witness today stem from a common root, which can be traced back to the pre-modern phenomenon of May Day carnivalesque. These May Day festivities began as instances of “communal pleasure” and eventually manifested in organized social revolts, especially “peasant revolts,” all over Europe. Fast-forward to the communal manifestations of joy in the Sixties, the Be-ins and Love-ins that were inherently a threat to the status quo and, thus, served as vehicles for protest movements, bringing together both countercultural hippies and New-Left activists. In the opinion of many a socio-political observer at that time, a revolution, a great social transformation, the likes of which history had never seen, was in the making. As a radical theorist of art and politics prophetically wrote in 1966, which I quote here as it gives the entire tenor of this musical essay series for May Day:


The next generation needs to be told that the real fight is not the political fight but to put an end to politics. From politics to meta-politics. From politics to poetry. Legislation is not politics, nor philosophy, but poetry. Poetry, art, is not an epiphenomenal reflection of some other (political, economic) realm which is the “real thing”…. Poetry, art, imagination, the creator spirit is life itself; the real revolutionary power to change the world; to change the human body…. To begin to dance; who can tell the dancer from the dance; it is the impossible unity and union of everything. –Prof. N. O. Brown of UCSC


To sum up, it is the thesis of these musical essays for Beltane/MayDay that these two separate holidays—the seasonal Spring fertility festival and the socio-political day of labor— commemorated on the same day have a common origin, and thus can actually be celebrated together without the least bit of incongruity. There are different ways of celebrating May Day in the U.S., and modern May Day ceremonies vary from region to region. However, at the time of this writing, the Gypsy Scholar was unaware that there are some regions in the country that already bring together the May Day pagan and the labor tradition; that is, there is a uniting what’s called the pagan “Green Root” and the labor “Red Root” traditions. So, it seems that the theory of this musical essay series has already been proved! Yet, nonetheless, this musical essay series is imperative because it reveals the historical reasons why the two May Days can be celebrated together and, furthermore, provides a theoretical framework for the underpinnings of May Day in “collective joy.” Therefore, the GS envisions the two different May Day celebratory groups—the neopagan “mysticos” and the neo-Marxist “politicos”—coming together and dancing in the street.