Little did I know that I was participating in, gasp, a pagan ritual co-opted by the good fellows responsible for carving Christianity--and in this specific case, the Catholic church--from centuries-old beliefs honoring not some remote and dour white man with a flowing beard and nasty temperament as the one Supreme Being, but instead a pantheon of frolicking gods and goddesses who reveled in Nature. But on that sunny day in May, I was safely sheltered from the truth lurking behind the theology.
Yet truth has a way of poking through, and it started rearing its capricious head when I later spied a smarmy priest bouncing the aforementioned virgins on his knees as his face flushed in a most unseemly and unholy manner. Aghast at such behavior, I thought, "This cannot be!" But it was, and--though I didn't know it at the time--my transformation from a pious and devout believer to a doubting Thomasina had begun.
Seeds of rebellion had been planted earlier by an elementary school teacher with the temerity to celebrate the month of May as Earth-loving people had honored it for centuries. On May Day (the first of the month), Mrs. Fisher, a social studies teacher with the patience of a saint, trooped us down to the auditorium where she distributed musical instruments and introduced us to the pleasures of the maypole. I always longed for a tambourine. Some years, I was lucky enough to get one.
Cacophonous and gleeful children held maypole streamers as they blissfully skipped around the brightly decorated shaft. Reveling in our freedom, May Day was the happiest day of the school year.
Years later, I found myself at a Catholic high school singing, in Latin no less, "Tantum Ergo," a song whose title translates to "Down in Adoration Falling." Unbeknownst to my increasingly skeptical self, several lines reveal the insidious purpose of this exercise in brainwashing.
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.
It would be decades before I learned this English translation and understood how the Church expropriated ancient pagan rituals to its own ends. And by discrediting human senses as feeble--thus severing our connection to the natural world--the Church could base its authority on an unquestioning faith.
But despite centuries of suppression, inquisitions, crusades and the burning of witches, the Old Ways managed to survive, albeit among a greatly diminished number of people. Pagans and Wiccans still celebrate May as one of the most important months of the year.
May Day's ancient Celtic name is Beltane. An Anglicized version of the Irish Bealtaine, it refers to the Celtic god of light and is associated with fire. According to a Wiccan Web site, there are several names for Beltane, including Roodmas, a name the Church bestowed on the day in an effort to shift the population's loyalty from the maypole to the Holy Rood or cross.
While the maypole's flagrant phallic imagery symbolized life, the cross represented death. The struggle between the Church and the ancient beliefs was one between Eros and Thanatos; to the detriment of future generations, the death-worshippers prevailed. Though an unabashed celebration of fertility and sexuality, May Day rituals involved more than dancing around the maypole. "Walking the circuit of one's property ('beating the bounds'), repairing fences and boundary markers, processions of chimney-sweeps and milk maids, archery tournaments, morris dances, sword dances, feasting, music, drinking and maidens bathing their faces in the dew of May morning to retain their youthful beauty," were all part of the scene, according to one source. Of course, May day also included sexual romps in the woods, and it was this spirited, guilt-free, joyous and decidedly non-monogamous tangling of loins that got the Puritans' panties all in a bunch. An upset Puritan is said to have written that men "doe use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe." Another, speaking of those naughty maidens in the woods, complained "not the least one of them comes home again a virgin." Imagine that.
And imagine how human history might have taken a different course if, instead of crowning statues or celebrating an ersatz "holiday" like Law Day, we were all still enjoying the fruits of the lusty month of May.