Always a Dryad, Never the May Queen

Always a Dryad, Never the May Queen May 2, 2012

Daily, daily sing to Mary
Sing, my soul, her praises due
All her feasts, her actions worship
With the heart’s devotion true
Lost in wond’ring contemplation
Be her majesty professed
Call her Mother, call her Virgin
Happy Mother! Virgin blest!
~ May hymn from the St Gregory Hymnal, lyrics recalled from (50+ years of) memory

A day late. I wanted to post about this yesterday, but I was too busy trying to catch up with my real jobs (promoting Catholic stewardship, marketing cosmetic dermatology–and yes, I know there’s a lot of potential for conflict there, especially when I forget which one I’m writing about) and coming off a bad few days of tree-pollen assault here in Sinus Valley, USA.

So a belated Happy May Day, and for any stray pagans and Wiccans (yes, I know, some of you think they’re all strays) Happy Beltane and Hope You Had a Wild Walpurgisnacht. Workers of the World (and Occupiers all, who’ve adopted this day in solidarity with the laboring 99%), I trust you were especially united yesterday. And as if the First of May did not have enough commemorative weight to carry, thanks to President Obama I now know I can also wish us all a belated Happy Loyalty Day (celebrated since 1921, marked by presidential proclamation by every president except Richard Nixon(!) since 1960, but completely unnoticed by me until today, so very belated).

For Catholics, of course, yesterday was the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. Or at least it has been since 1955, when Pope Pius XII kicked to the liturgical curb (and to May 11) Sts Philip and James, Apostles, whose feast had been celebrated on that day since the 6th century, and gave the day to Joseph. The pope wanted a feast day that would counteract the Italian communist Labor Day parades, so he gave San Giusep’ (particularly popular among Italians, communist or not) a bonus feast beyond his traditional March 19, and emphasized Joseph’s blue-collar occupation to reclaim the workers of the world under divine patronage.

May Day as Labor Day predates Italian communists. It commemorates Chicago’s Haymarket Square demonstration of May 4, 1886, organized in support of the 8-hour day. As police tried to break up the peaceful protest, a bomb was thrown, and in the explosion and ensuing riot, 11 people–8 of them police officers–were killed. (Anarchists were tried for the bomb-throwing, as anarchists usually are, and though found not guilty of actually throwing the bomb, convicted of conspiracy.) The American Federation of Labor voted in 1890 to kick May 4 to the curb and set May 1 as an international celebration of workers’ rights.

Loyalty Day, as it turns out, was first celebrated as Americanization Day in Illinois, as a secular antidote to all that anarchist-socialist-communist May Day stuff. President Eisenhower signed the day into law as a legal, though not federal, holiday, requiring the President to make a proclamation on the importance of reaffirming loyalty to the United States in recognition of our heritage of freedom. (Eisenhower himself chose to honor that heritage of freedom by not making a proclamation, apparently.)

But May Day has older–though not as old as you’d think–roots in Catholic poplar devotion as the start of Mary’s month. The Jesuits were the first to assign this month to Mary, in the 1700s, and gradually the popular devotions we know, including May processions and May crownings, spread worldwide. In my family photo album are snapshots of several May processions held in the working-class Boston suburb of Hyde Park in the 1940s. There are my teenage uncles in cassocks and surplices, accompanying the biretta-ed pastor of Most Precious Blood Parish with three-foot-tall brass candlesticks. And there is my mother. One year she is–unthinkably, now, on that eve of Pearl Harbor–among a row of young teen girls dressed in kimonos, chopsticks in their hair. They were the Cherry Blossom Princesses. Another year, mom wears a hoop-skirted organdy dress and a picture hat large enough to set sail, an outfit she can have had no other use for in her life at the time, not being on the list for the a garden party at Buckingham Palace or eatin’ barbecue at Twelve Oaks. That year, she was a member of the court of the May Queen.

Those pictures always made me so envious. Growing up, I hated May. Our elementary school classes held weekly May crownings, with one girl each week selected to be the May Queen and place a hand-woven wreath of flowers on the head of the large statue of Mary the Immaculate Conception found in every classroom. The May Queens were chosen according to a sole criterion–whichever girl brought in the most beautiful flowers from home. I couldn’t compete. We lived in a four-unit apartment building with a concrete parking pad for a yard. The only things that grew at my house were poinsettias (tree-high and weedily prolific, with Elmer’s glue sap that we believed was uniformly lethal; we called them milkweeds) and jade plants. Any May crown I would have woven would have made Mary look like she was wearing a hat made of lima beans with a poisonous Christmas ornament on top. My classmate Mary Dean (O she whom Fortune smiled upon!) lived with her family at the Sunset Boulevard motel they owned, which–as if that fact alone were not cool enough–had not only a pool but also an on-site rose garden with blooms as perfect and dewy as the ones Juan Diego found in his tilma, only in a bigger variety of colors. Mary Dean, as I recall (though envy may blind me), was the May Queen every other week from first through eighth grade.

High school Queen’s Day, 1960s

In high school, though, with the hippie nuns, I grew to love May for our art-filled, liturgical-dance-crammed, batik-banners-in-the-breeze Queen’s Day celebrations, patterned on Immaculate Heart College’s Mary’s Day love-ins started by Sister Corita Kent and celebrated in one of the first films Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool, In the Heat of the Night, Bound for Glory) ever shot. I have, somewhere, a slide of myself taken on Mary’s Day in the last year I attended the college. I’m wearing a tie-dyed smock and sitting under a tree. The tree branches are decked with Maypole ribbons, and someone has braided my long hair and the ribbons together, so when the wind blows I’m some kind of cross between a happy Medusa and a dryad. It’s a perfect reminder that the earliest May celebrations were held in honor of other queens–mother goddesses and spring maidens, Persephone and Primavera.

That ribbon of paganism (which really only means “the country people’s faith”) braided into and never quite completely baptized away by Catholicism is one of the things that I think makes us who we are. Catholics are the world’s religious recyclers, and proud of it. It’s not syncretism or relativism, which says Oh yeah whatever it’s all good. And it doesn’t diminish one whit the truth of the Faith, no matter what that guy whose comments I won’t publish about Christianity just being warmed over Mithraism keeps trying to tell me. Talk about your Here Comes Everybody: we are so that.

I love the jumble. I love the trumping of one holiday with another, but never quite erasing the pentimento underneath. I love Mary’s being crowned with Venus’s roses. I love Maypoles and Morris dancers and Guinevere singing Tra la, it’s May, the lusty month of May, the lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray. I love the Walpurgisnacht Wiccans dancing around the Beltane fires on a feast named for St Walburga, niece of St Boniface and mitred abbess of the first German Benedictine nuns. (She’s also invoked against rabies; could I make this up?) I love St Joseph and the Wobblies duking it out for the affections of the working class on Loyalty Day. I love my mother the Irish Catholic Japanese Cherry Blossom Princess, marching in the May procession. I love the hippie nuns of the 1960s and the Catholics today who hear about them and do a facepalm and say Oh my Gawd.

And with another decade or two of prayer and penance, I might even love the Enviable May Queen Mary Dean enough to wish her a Happy (Belated) May Day!

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