My alarm went off at 5:15 yesterday morning. Rather than my normal pattern of sleeping until 8 and hitting the snooze button a dozen times, I rolled out of bed and grabbed my bicycling clothes. Barry was only a minute behind me. We had a sunrise to catch.
The event was a dawn Mayday celebration at Gasworks Park, with live musicians and Morris dancers. We rode through the park to the edge of Lake Union, where we found dozens of costumed Morris dancers, a handful of musicians, and about forty spectators.
The scene had a deliciously anachronistic feel.
The rusty industrial machinery of Gasworks loomed behind us, and the Space Needle and city skyline rose on the other side of the water. But our jeans and fleece pullovers stood out from the rest of the crowd; everyone seemed to be wearing cloaks instead of jackets. They exchanged flowers and greeted each other with “Happy Mayday.” Waiting for the music to begin, a woman near us looked over her shoulder and spied someone she wasn’t expecting. “Oh my Goddess!” she exclaimed.
The musicians struck up a tune on the accordion, clarinet, and tuba, and the colorful dancers began. They all had fun with their props, mostly handkerchiefs and big noisy sticks. They wore bells on their stockings, and some dances featured a goofy serpent that we at first mistook for a horse.
A pair of joggers in spandex caught my eye. One was fascinated by the strange scene they’d chanced upon. Her mouth was hanging open in surprise, and she started running backwards so she wouldn’t miss anything. Her companion rolled his eyes and dragged her away.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the offstage performers pick up a bowl of chocolates and offer it to some people near me. I thought they were friends of his, until he continued around the circle and offered us some. He was followed by a group of women handing out champagne and strawberries!
The history of the Mayday celebration has its roots in Beltane, the Celtic start of the summer. It’s based on an old fertility rite, one reason why it’s such a fun holiday — a lot of hanky-panky went on in the woods and the furrowed fields the night of April 30th and morning of May 1st. Even the maypole, a favorite of children, is a phallic symbol, surrounded by ribbons that symbolize female energy.
The heavy cloud cover didn’t diminish the event, and finally a few rays of sunshine made their way over Capitol Hill, to scattered applause. It was still so early that crew boats were taking advantage of the still waters to practice on Lake Union.
It was an amazing way to start an amazing day. The first of May is many things, not just Beltane. It’s International Workers’ Day, a holiday celebrated in the U.S. until the anti-communist era of the 1950’s. Our Labor Day was moved to September, but most other countries have a bank holiday on May 1st. Like the Christian church, trying to stamp out earlier religions by superimposing new holidays on top of old, President Bush recently declared May 1st to be “Loyalty Day” in the U.S. In Latvia, May 1st is Constitution Day. It’s also Save the Rhino day. And this year, millions of people used the day to protest U.S. immigration policies.
It’s also my birthday.
As if mine wasn’t enough, the week offers plenty of celebrity birthdays. Judy Collins was born on May 1st, Engelbert Humperdinck on the 2nd, Pete Seeger on the 3rd, and Heloise on the 4th. Karl Marx was born on the 5th. Is it a coincidence that his birthday is so close to International Workers’ Day?
If you want additional celebrations, the first week in May has those, too. The first Thursday is probably not a good day for fertility rites: It’s the National of Prayer. May 2nd is Be Kind to Smelly People Day and the 3rd is Lumpy Rug Day. But the end of the week has the really lively celebrations: National Tuba Day on the 4th and Cinco de Mayo on the 5th.
Finally, there’s my favorite, on Friday, May 5th: No Pants Day! Leave your pants at home and wear boxers or briefs only (no shorts or skirts). Now that’s an observance that goes well with fertility rites.