True, Incomplete and Wonderful History of May Day
by Peter Linebaugh

To the history of May Day there is a Green side and there is a Red side. Green is a relationship to the Earth and what grows thereof. Red is a relationship to other people and the blood spilt there among. Green designates life with only necessary labor; Red refuses death by surplus labor. Green is natural appropriation; Red is war against social expropriation. Green is social utility; Red resists manufactured futility. Green dreams of the world that is to come; Red resists the world as it is. Green is nurturing; Red is struggle. May Day is both.

The Green

Once upon a time, before there was a New World Order, before the 21st century, a broad mantle of forests blanketed the Earth. As late as Caesar's time a person might travel through the woods for two months without gaining an unobstructed view of the sky. The immense forests of Europe, Asia, Africa and America provided the atmosphere with oxygen and the Earth with nutrients. Within the woodland ecology our ancestors did not have to work the graveyard shift, or to deal with flextime, or work from nine to five. Indeed, the Native Americans whom Captain John Smith encountered in 1606 only worked four hours a week. The origin of May Day is to be found in the woodland epoch.

In Europe, as in Africa, people honored the woods in many ways. With the leafing of the trees in spring, people celebrated "the fructifying spirit of vegetation," to use the phrase of anthropologist J.G. Frazer. They did this in May, a month named after Maia, the mother of all the gods according to the ancient Greeks, giving birth even to Zeus.

The Greeks had their sacred groves, the Druids their oak worship, the Romans had their games in honor of Floralia. In Scotland, the herdsmen formed circles and danced around fires. The Celts lit bonfires on hilltops to honor their god, Beltane. In the Tyrol, people let their dogs bark and made music with pots and pans. In Scandinavia, fires were lit and the witches came out.

Everywhere people "went a-Maying" by going into the woods and bringing back leaf bough and blossom to decorate their persons, homes and loved ones with green garlands. Outside theater was performed with characters like "Jack-in-the-Green" and "Queen of the May." Trees were planted. Maypoles were erected. Dances were danced. Music was played. Drinks were drunk, and love was made. Winter was over, spring had sprung.

The history of these customs is complex and affords the student of the past with many interesting insights into the history of religion, gender, reproduction and village ecology. Take Joan of Are, who, after her inquisitors believed she was a witch, was burned at the stake in May 1431. Not far from her birthplace, she told the judges, "There is a tree that they call the Ladies' Tree; others call it the Fairies' Tree. It is a beautiful tree, from which comes the Maypole. I have sometimes been to play with the young girls to make garlands for Our Lady of Domremy. Often I have heard the old folk say that the fairies haunt this tree." The paganism of Joan's heresy originated in the Old Stone Age when religion was animistic and shamans were women and men.

Monotheism arose with the Mediterranean empires. Even the most powerful Roman Empire had to make deals with its conquered and enslaved peoples (syncretism). As it destroyed some customs it had to accept or transform others. Thus we have Christmas trees.

The farmers, workers and child-bearers (laborers) of the Middle Ages had hundreds of holy-days which preserved the May Green, despite the attack on peasants and witches. Whether May Day was observed by sacred or profane ritual, by pagan or Christian, by magic or not, by straights or gays, by gentle or callused hands, it was always a celebration of all that is free and lifegiving in the world. That is the Green side of the story.

This is an edited version of a piece published by the Midnight Notes Collective, POB 204, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130. For the full text, which includes the Red side of the story, visit .

© Earth First! Journal May-June 2001

 

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