May Day, Summerdaeg, Walpurgis… trying to discern the pre-Christian celebrations and origins of this holytide can be a bit tricky. Typing ‘Walpurgis’ into the ever-handy google… turns up detailed information about the Catholic saint known by that name, but when it comes to the pagan past the details seem vague at best. One has to do some digging to find anything of more substance. For those of you that LOVE to really read into the meat of the matter with academic factoids, you might find this article by Winifred Hodge a fascinating read.
But for a more down-to-earth understanding May Day numbers as one of the Summer holy-days, the first being Ostara. Do I hear a few mental thought processes screeching to a halt at that statement among my readers? Let me explain. Today, our culture embraces the concept of the 4 seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. But, in the countries of the ancient Northern Tradition by their cultural worldview there were only two seasons: Summer and Winter. Summer began at the time of Ostara… for summer was viewed as life thriving in the land. Thus the Summer Solstice (which is viewed as the start of our summer today) was their MidSummer. Winter was characterized by the decay and dormancy of the land. A time when food was scarce, people were dwelling indoors in closed quarters and the combination of the cold, potential mal-nourishment and disease took many lives.
As the first summer holy-day, Ostara coincided with the awakening of the land from its sleep. Even though some plants were growing, it was still a season where cold snaps and the stinging breath of winter still came to nip the noses of ancient Heathens. This awakening of the land told those who worked the fields that it was time to prep the fields. Time to plow the fields and prepare them for the crops to come. May Day is a demarcation, that winter’s lingering sting should be passed and that the awakened earth now laid ripe and powerful with fertility, in other words it was a perfect time for planting.
May Day embodies the final chasing away of the Winter, while honoring the local landvaettir and Gods and Goddesses for a bountiful harvest, good weather, no blights by weather: insects or plant disease, as well as for the health and fertility of the people.
Our best sources from the Northern Tradition are seen in Germanic traditions that survived late into the Christian era and persist today. We know that bonfires were used by some to burn away the garbage of the year: broken items, and old clothes, symbolic representations that by burning them in somewhat effigy one gained good health and protection from ill-intended sorcery. Others leapt the flames, or their broomsticks. I can see many of these customs boiling down to key concepts, such as a symbolic representation of chasing away the winter with summer heat, and by getting rid of the bad times and bad items to start renewed.
Farmers who had been lazy and hadn’t yet plowed their fields were ‘gifted’ with little dolls to “shame” them into work. These admonishments… were critical to community survival. Failure to contribute could, especially in a lean year, mean starvation not only for the farmer but his neighbors.
So in a day and age where many of us do not work the land, and certainly don’t farm for a living, sometimes there can be a bit of a disconnect with just how important these agricultural cycles are to the health and prosperity of a community. In the dead of winter we can import strawberries in from South American countries. If we have a hankering for some meat we just go to the store. Most of us don’t have to balance out which animals should be slaughtered, which kept for breeding or labor later in the year.
So how can we celebrate this today?
Instead of burning old clothes, donate them. We may not have so many broken items that we haven’t already gotten rid of like in olden days, but it can even be a time to try to put past mistakes and grief behind you. You may not plow the land or reap the crops… but even if you make your livelihood as an artist you can pray that you may grow in skill and in customers.
Hailing and honoring your local vaettir is always a good idea. Traditional gifts are bread and butter, milk and honey. But vaettir are known for local tastes. So if you’re in Texas your local vaettir may just appreciate some cool fresh water, Shiner Bock, or Cerveza with lime in addition to other offerings.Hailing the Gods and Goddesses is (of course) always welcome. Many will hail those associated with the land or the working thereof: Goddesses like Nerthus, Jörd or Gefjon. The Vanic deities of Freyr and Freya are also popular because of their strong associations with fertility. Others may hail Thor to ask that he brings storms to water the crops, but would he be so kind as to please keep his enthusiasm in check… well at least over the crops. All that matters is not so much who that you hail, but to hail someone. Follow your heart. So long as the words come from a place of sincerity and respect all will be well. But if you’d like perhaps a suggestion…
A May Day Prayer
Here we are in a time of ripe beginnings once again.
We say away with you cold winter’s dread
As our arms spread wide to embrace the
Growing heat of summer fields.
Disir bless us and keep us
ever under your watchful care.
Protect us from harm,
and those that wish us ill.
Grant us protection from disease,
And an abundance of your wisdom.
We greet thee Gefjon,
The Giving Goddess,
Comfort of maidens,
She who sees our fates.
Land-taker we call you.
You are the farmer’s friend
at time to plow.
Your work feeds
and sustains us
All year round.
We ask for your many blessings.
May crops and livelihoods be free of blight
May our hard work be fruitful in the days ahead
So we may delight in the warmth and joy of kith and kin.
So we hail!
You can give offerings of flowers and food. Great offerings to give in the way of food are dishes incorporating some of the seasonal fare available in your local area. In Texas the month of May is known for blue and blackberries, peaches, pears, all sorts of peppers, cucumbers, honeydew melon and cantaloupe. Not sure what is seasonal? Epicurious has you covered with an interactive seasonal map for the United States. (For any readers elsewhere, sorry! You’ll have to hope your google-fu is mighty!)
In addition to food, libations are always welcomed. A traditional German May Day punch known as Waldermeister Bowle can be made up. Unfortunately the key ingredient, woodruff is a bit hard to come by in most places. Instead you might try your hand at my own personal punch recipe.
- cran-apple juice (64 ounces)
- 2 ginger ale 2 liters
- approximately 36 ounces of an alcoholic beverage (I used Mike’s Hard Raspberry Lemonade)
- spices to taste: 1-2 tablespoons each of cinnamon, all spice, and nutmeg
- 2-3 large oranges
- a quart of strawberries
Pour the cran-apple juice into a pot on the stove. Now dump the spices into the mixture, and then turn heat to low. Stirring occasionally.
While the spices are saturating into the juice mixture, begin to slice oranges thinly, and then cut in half. Take the equivalent of ½ of an orange already sliced, cut the slice again (you should have 4 pieces for each ‘slice”). Then place into the pot.
Cut the strawberries into quarters. ¼ of them should be added to the pot on the stove.
At this time the remaining orange slices and the strawberries not added to the pot should be placed onto an uncovered dish or container, and then stored overnight in the freezer. Effectively turning the fruit into flavorful ice cubes that can be added to the punch when it’s ready to serve.
Now turn the heat up on the stove to a medium high heat until it begins to simmer, and then reduce to low. Stir well and make sure the spices seem well constituted into the mixture. Once the spices look as if they’ve properly dissolved. You’re ready for the next step.
Next you’ll need a large container to mix the contents of the pot, the ginger ale, and the alcohol all together. Store in the fridge overnight to chill. Add the frozen fruit (one orange slice and at least one or two strawberries per cup) when you’re ready to serve.
Whatever you end up doing, may you have a great Summerdaeg!