There’s something inherently cheerful about the month of May. The weather, instead of going from snowy-icy-cold to cold-wet-muddy (April) starts at cold-wet-muddy and achieves sunshine, flowers and warmth (and the occasional hail storm.) Last year, the mood on May first in my office was more buoyant than your average workday. “I knew I was in a good mood when I saw the Morris dancers in Harvard Square and wanted to beat them,” chirped one of my coworkers.
May, as well as being a month of flowers, lust, and warm weather, is the lucky possessor of no less than 4 holidays - more than most months (not counting religious holidays.) But, you may ask, what exactly are these days that make May so special? And where do the Morris dancers come in?
The first holiday in May is, well, May first. Better known as May Day, a holiday steeped in either Celtic fertility rites or socioeconomic protest, depending on who you talk to.
My dirty old man of a high school English teacher was more than happy to go into the significance of May Day. “It’s all about sex!” he used to warble (of course, everything was about sex with him. Or war.) The Maypole, he gleefully informed us, was a phallic symbol, and the dance around it was a sort of temporary wedding service, followed by a bonfire and couples going off to have sex in the fields. That afternoon we watched the elementary school kids Morris dancing and weaving ribbons around the Maypole with newly opened eyes and gave a collective shudder. Not only had we done a maypole dance when we were that age, but we had done it with that kid (you know, that one). Yet another reason never ever to forgive our third grade gym teacher.
In college, May first was a day when you were likely to see people meandering about dressed in Garb (the official term for the sort of vaguely medieval clothing found at renaissance faires) and sporting flowers and a sunny expression (or a dark, bitter expression, accompanied by muttering about the Christian oppression of traditional Pagan culture). Later that night, there would be a bonfire on the square, although the post-bonfire sex was moved from the green to the dorm room, to the relief of Campus Security, the Police Department and all innocent bystanders.
And, of course, there is the Morris dancing. Simply put, it is a kind of folk dance that originated in Celtic Britain that involves a team of men hopping about in bells and silly costumes while waving sticks at each other... or swords, which is infinitely more exciting. Depending on whom you ask, it is either stupendous fun or an instrument of torture from the devil. I’m inclined towards the latter view, if only because May first was the first sunny day of the week here, proving that the Morris dancers had struck an unholy deal with Satan so that they could jingle their bells under a clear blue sky.
May Day isn’t all sex and Morris dancing, though. In fact, it is also a traditional day of protest, initiated in the 19th century by workers lobbying for a shorter work day. In France last year, thousands of people turned out for mostly-peaceful protests against Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front party who challenged and lost to Jacques Chirac. In Berlin, the protests were violent and anti-capitalist. In London, there was a general protest against various Issues and President Bush was burned in effigy (this year it is likely that they'll toss on Dick Cheyney, the entirety of Congress and Uncle Sam for good measure). Some countries used the day to deal with the situation in the Middle East. While others, like Russia, had an economic focus, heavy on the Soviet nostalgia and trade unions.
What about America? How did we celebrate May Day? Well... last year they announced the new “ratbot” technology that allows scientists to move a rat by means of a chip implanted in its brain. You know what comes next?
Robot-controlled Morris dancers.
Seriously, the scientists swear on the periodic table of the elements that the technology will be used to send rescue animals into collapsed buildings and to allow people to control prosthetic limbs. In reality, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding research on "animal sentinels" and in the future we may see rat reconnaissance teams, rat messengers...and, inevitably, "ratbombs" - kamikaze rats, except that they don't volunteer and have no idea that the trail of reward signals is leading them to the big sewer in the sky.
After this spectacular kick-off, May gears up for its first big party, Cinco de Mayo. In Mexico, this is a celebration of the victory of a small Mexican force over the larger French army at Puebla in 1862. It is a proud moment in their history, despite the later Mexican defeat. In America, it is the one day around which the brewers of Mexican beer plan their entire advertising year, and a chance for bars and clubs to translate most of their tequila stock into nausea and early-morning headaches. It also presents a great wish fulfillment opportunity for all of the college kids who didn’t make it to Cancun for Spring Break to garner their own “this one time, when I was drinking tequila” stories.
After Cinco de Mayo vomits itself to a close, you’ve got only six days to get over your hangover and whip up some filial sentiment before...
This is an unabashed Hallmark holiday, catering to everyone who feels guilty for ignoring his or her mother for the past 8 months. If you think about it, she deserves the flowers, cards, and guilt-induced teddy bears. After all, she is the one who changed your diapers, sat with you when you had the stomach flu, and cheered you on when you played the broccoli in the school play. Face it, you couldn’t pay for that kind of support, and it’s worth all of the embarrassing “When you were 4, you [fill in the blank]” stories. Yes, even when they tell them to your boy/girlfriend. So suck it up and buy the woman some flowers. Remember: a little holiday-sanctioned bribery never hurt anyone. It'll make her feel warm, fuzzy, and proud, and maybe she won't tell your significant other about the incident with the pudding and the hamster.
And finally? Memorial Day. This national holiday exists to remember war heroes, and is marked by parades and cemetery memorials. It’s also the official kick-off of summer culture. For those lucky enough to live near the coast, this means transferring their barbecues from back yard to the beach. And in country clubs around the nation, women will pull out the white pants they put away last Labor Day and hit the tennis courts/golf links/$200-a-plate outdoor fundraisers with all the vim and vigor in their pastel-covered Laura Ashley hearts.
Did you miss out on some of these exciting May activities last year? Don't worry; with this handy guide to the holidays, you can't go wrong. Celebrate the only 3-letter month in the year by dancing. Or having sex, or protesting, or getting bombed on tequila (and having sex), or crank out the first barbecue of the season. Go out and beat some Morris dancers. Or, even better, have a beer (or 12) and join them.
White pants are optional.
Sarah Ficke will make sport for you, and laugh at you in her turn. She has channeled her obsession for books into a career as an English professor.
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4.23.03 @ 12:36a
I like to think of May 27th as a holiday. That's my birthday. I'm kinda self-centered that way.
I'm with your English Prof. on the May Day thing. Not too crazy about the open fields bit (too many bugs).
4.23.03 @ 9:12a
May 28th is the real holiday, though sometimes I observe it on the 27th.
4.23.03 @ 11:42a
Funny. I never really thought of celebrating May, but by golly, this calls for a change of heart.
4.23.03 @ 1:33p
Go Tracey! I bet you'd make one hell of an imposing Morris dancer.
4.23.03 @ 1:44p
I like to celebrate May.
May Day, in college at least, was just one more excuse for casual sex.
Besides, my birthday's in May (and Matt's and Robert's and...?) -- what's there not to celebrate?
4.23.03 @ 2:57p
you need an EXCUSE for casual sex?
4.23.03 @ 3:06p
I love catching my tongue.
No.. not at all.. but it was an excuse to make an excuse.
michelle von euw
4.23.03 @ 3:24p
With all the sex and drinking, I guess May was the perfect month to get married (26, for those of you sending cards).
I love the idea of Robot-controlled Morris dancers. What are the chances that the MIT geeks will send 'em down to Harvard Square this May 1?
4.23.03 @ 3:49p
I've never heard of celebrating May Day. Who knew!? But I thoroughly aniticipate celebrating Memorial Day with some drunken beachy debauchery.
And, not so shockingly, Cinco de Mayo is pretty big in SoCal. I can't speak a word of Spanish, but hell if I can't take Tequila like a champ!
4.23.03 @ 11:40p
At my alma mater, the students would use Mayday to turn our local statue of a Saxon king into a maypole.
Some of us wondered if university students really want to perform a fertility ritual.
4.24.03 @ 9:35a
I thought the students at your college pretty much performed fertility rituals every day?
4.24.03 @ 9:38a
In college, we spent a lot of time performing anti-fertility rituals, I think.
4.24.03 @ 10:00a
Oh.. those latex anti-fertility rituals?
4.24.03 @ 3:10p
I think there were some muttered prayers as well.
5.1.03 @ 9:33a
Happy May everyone! Anyone spotted a Morris dancer? It's raining in Boston today, so I think they may have soaked their bells and ribbons and gone home.
5.1.03 @ 10:52a
I think you should go back and check later -- I've never taken Morris dancers as being early-morning creatures. They have to wait until mid-afternoon when they can beg for quarters in between jingles.
Are the Mennonites out singing, yet?
5.1.03 @ 10:55a
Don't know. I'm too far from the square.