May Day Announces the Onset of Summer
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
When we reach the first of May, Earth has moved along its orbit to where the
Northern Hemisphere is receiving an ever increasing flow of energy as each day
is longer than the one before. The Sun is climbing in our sky, and everything in
the Northern Hemisphere responds to its light. Indeed, we best be careful not to
overdose on its luminosity that can burn and even cause cancerous effects that
doctors warn about. We have reached the cross-quarter date that some past ages
have considered to be the start of summer.
In Celtic tradition, the night of April 30 was thought of as the darkest of
the year, when witches flew to frighten, spawning evil throughout the land. In
response, people pounded on kettles, slammed doors, cracked whips, rang church
bells and made all the noise they could to scare off the corruption they
imagined to be moving on the moist air. They lit bonfires and torches and witch-
proofed their houses with spring boughs. Such vigils were kept throughout the
night until the rising of the May-dawn.
Beltane--the word means "brilliant fire" in reference to the Sun--became more
commonly known as May Day. People danced around bonfires on hilltops, moving in
a clockwise, or "sunwise" direction. Later generations would dance around a pole
instead of a fire.
In the British Isles young men and maidens would go a-Maying on the eve of
May Day, spending all night in the forests to return at day-break, "bringing in
the May," adorning villages with spring boughs and blossoms. They might carry
with them the stem of a tree, place it in the village, and decorate it with
flowers, vines and ribbons. In later generations, people would dance around this
phallic of the earth as participants in the fertility of crops, flocks, herds
and humans. The celebration was for regeneration of life that comes with
increased sunlight that is so noticeable when we reach the junction between
vernal equinox and summer solstice.
Maypoles remain common in Scandinavian countries, and the trimmings are often
left through summer and winter as a gesture to symbolically insure the coming of
spring the following year. The meanings of the day have continued to change. In
1887, socialistic countries established May 1 as a day for working people to
show unity in public demonstrations. In communist Russia, the day became one of
political speeches and military parades. It is difficult to imagine drifting
much farther from the origins of the occasion of reaching the point in our
annual travels around our star when we feel the urge to celebrate the increase
of starlight that falls upon our portion of ground to amplify the symphony of
life around us. Maypoles seem so much more appropriate than do missiles aimed at
It is, after all, the location of Earth in its solar orbit that we celebrate
on any anniversary. Your birthday, Independence Day, Christmas and all the
others that are date specific are established by Earth's orbit and are marked by
reference to the Sun in our sky. If you wish, you could mark these days by
knowing where the Sun would rise as viewed from some specific observing station.
Your horizon calendar would be defined by the limiting northern and southern
gateways for sunrise or sunset at summer and winter solstices. The equinox would
mark the mid-point, and the cross-quarter dates could provide additional
reference points for visualization of the passage of the year. You could add
your own personal anniversaries that you wish to celebrate with the entrance and
exit of the Sun on those particular days.
Native Americans occupying this land before us were watching the Sun migrate
on the horizon. When it reached the place we have named "May" they were singing
the songs that brought them into harmony with the fertility of Mother Earth and
Father Sky. Their rewards were gentle rains, mixed with sunlight. Successively,
as the Sun reached established "houses" on their horizons, they placed seeds in
the soil: several plantings to assure good crops.
Calendar keeping people also watch the stars. In early May the evening sky in
the west is marked by an arc of brilliant stars. Sirius in Canis Major,
brightest star of the night is low to the southwest, setting in the dusk. Higher
and a bit farther north is Procyon in Canis Minor. Then we come to the bright
pair, Castor and Pollux, the Twins of Gemini. Still farther north is yellow-cast
Capella in Auriga. Capella being the last of the group to set gives its name to
this star- lit arch--"Arc of Capella."
Underneath the arch, vanishing from the evening sky, are famous winter stars.
As May comes in, the Pleiades, a tightly-clustered group in the constellation
Taurus, vanishes in the evening twilight, and mighty Orion follows them. Both
groups have long been used for agriculture. The Navajo people refer to the
Pleiades as Dilyehe'. "Never let Dilyehe' see you plant," they say. Once the
Pleiades are gone from the evening it is time to begin planting in Navajoland,
and crops must be started before Dilyehe' is back in the early morning sky
before the dawn.
The cross-quarter day that is only vaguely remembered these days in the form
of May Day certainly signals the onset of the most pleasant of times in our part
of the world. Leaves are bursting out on trees, flowers in all the colors of the
rainbow appear on deserts and make their way into the mountains. Farmers work
fields and backyard-gardeners plant vegetables and herbs. This is a good time to
look around at earth and sky with greater sensitivity and appreciation of
emerging abundance that initiates the harvest we will surely enjoy in a few
This article was modified from the original to serve as an information
source for all May Day cross-quarter events.
Another good article to read is Phil Plait's What Causes the Seasons?
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