April 30, 2010
May Day, the first day of May, doesn’t usually get a lot of love—or anything else—in this country, but elsewhere it is observed as an important holiday. In some countries it has become associated with the worker’s movement and is a day for protests; interestingly, this tradition began in 19th-century America, where Labor Day is now observed, usually protest-free, in September. In the last few years, though, the activist tradition has been revived in some large cities, where (predominantly Latino) immigrants have chosen May 1 to rally against anti-immigrant sentiment and laws that they consider unfair, such as the one recently passed in Arizona.
But the holiday’s origins are ancient, and have little to do with labor or politics. The Celtic festival of Beltane was a celebration of fertility and renewal. Huge bonfires were lit, around which people danced and feasted. A highlight was the serving of the Beltane cake, which had a scalloped edge and held a special surprise—more frightening than the baby in a king cake—for the person who received this blackened piece. What happened next is described in the 1922 book The Golden Bough, by Sir James George Frazer:
Towards the close of the entertainment, the person who officiated as master of the feast produced a large cake baked with eggs and scalloped round the edge, called am bonnach bea-tine—i.e., the Beltane cake. It was divided into a number of pieces, and distributed in great form to the company. There was one particular piece which whoever got was called cailleach beal-tine—i.e., the Beltane carline, a term of great reproach. Upon his being known, part of the company laid hold of him and made a show of putting him into the fire; but the majority interposing, he was rescued. And in some places they laid him flat on the ground, making as if they would quarter him. Afterwards, he was pelted with egg-shells, and retained the odious appellation during the whole year. And while the feast was fresh in people’s memory, they affected to speak of the cailleach beal-tine as dead.
About 15 years ago, I stayed in Edinburgh, Scotland, for several months, and attended the revived Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill. The bonfire reached three or four stories high and lasted all night, with people in wild costumes parading and dancing around it to a constant drumbeat. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my visit, though I don’t recall any cake.
In Northern Europe, related festivals have merged with the feast day for St. Walpurga. Called Walpurgisnacht in German and Vappu in Finnish, the night before is often celebrated with bonfires, student pranks and other mischief, and the following day with picnics. Maiwein, or May Wine, is a traditional beverage flavored with the herb sweet woodruff. In Finland, a version of mead called Sima is the drink of choice. May Day fritters, called Tippaleivät, look like miniature funnel cakes and are a customary Finnish treat for the holiday.
In this country, by coincidence, the first Saturday of May is always Derby Day, when the Kentucky Derby thoroughbred races are held. Mint juleps and a thick stew called Burgoo are the traditional way to celebrate Derby Day. If you read the 1970 account of the festivities by the original Gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, called “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” you might get the sense that the raucous event is not all that different from May Day revelry elsewhere.
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