In western Europe, prior to the rise of Christianity, many forms of religion were based on nature worship, which took its cues from the changing seasons and the cycles of death and rebirth which characterize the natural world. In those so-called pagan times, the first of May was a crucial holiday. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by the American Museum of Natural History.
“Well, May Day is a part of the old pagan calendar. Back in the old days, people were more pastoral. They had a few crops, but mostly they were cattle herders or sheep herders. And so they divided their year into two seasons, rather than four. Farmers divide the year into four seasons because they have to know when to plant crops and when to harvest them, but when you have only winter grass or summer grass, you divide the year into two seasons. And so Halloween and May Day were basically the two transitions of seasons in the pagan calendar.”
Verna Gates is a Special Studies instructor at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
“May Day is a bold up front fertility festival. They wanted their fields to be fertile; they wanted their sheep and cows to be fertile; they wanted their women to be fertile. It was springtime. Everything should be born and grow. Every thing comes back to life. The fields come back; the flowers come back; the trees are reborn. Everything [that] has died is reborn.”
Traditionally, a young girl was chosen to act as May Queen, and she presided, with the May King, over the festivities.
“The May Queen would represent the triple goddess, which is Maiden, Mother and Crone. [At] May Day, she is the maiden and hopefully if the fertility rites go well, then in the summer she is the mother and then going on Halloween, she turns into the crone again.”
Pulse of the Planet is presented by the American Museum of Natural History. Additional funding for this series has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I’m Jim Metzner.