Imagine living in a village surrounded by meadows. On the first of May, the girls wake at dawn to gather wildflowers in baskets to be left on doorsteps, and the boys create all sorts of mischief to disguise their awkwardness as bashful suitors. The day culminates in ritual dancing around a maypole to acknowledge and tame the high spirits brought on by the perfumed air warmed by the sun's new brightness. May Day celebrations seem to stretch back forever in time.
In ancient Rome tributes were paid to Flora, the goddess of flowers. In Sweden fires were built, and Old Man Winter was burned in effigy. The traditions we still recognize evolved in medieval England: A pole made from a birch tree and decorated with flowers was erected on the village green; the fairest of maidens was chosen as Queen of the May; male Morris dancers with bells strapped to arms and legs provided the rhythm for the girls who circled the pole.
People have also long believed that washing one's face in the May Day morning dew would beautify the skin. It still seems perfectly plausible. After all, this is a day when, tradition has it, all girls are lovely and all boys are handsome. No wonder, at least in Italy, it's regarded as the happiest day of the year.
Any of us can mark the return of nature's lushest hues by giving flowers to friends and neighbors. We decorated paper cones with ribbons, then filled them with blossoms to hang over doorknobs. Of course, in colder regions, early May is more a time for keen anticipation of blooms than their arrival, so the ingredients for your bouquets are likelier to come from a florist than from your garden. To keep the blossoms fresh, wrap the newly cut stems first in damp paper towels, then with a square of tin foil.
The music played to coordinate the dance steps can be anything from a polka to "London Bridges," or even an early seventeenth-century passage like this one, from poet William Browne's Britannia's Pastorals: "I have seen the lady of the May/Set in an arbour (on a holiday)/ Built by the maypole, where the/Jocund swains/Dance with the maidens/To the bagpipe strains."
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Above, the maypole is still the centerpiece of garden parties and festivals in Britain, and adds color, merriment, and tradition to our own spring festivities. The revels begin with a parade; usually children are called upon to bring out the decorated pole -- which symbolizes the tree of life -- and "plant" it in a prepared hole. It doesn't take a village green to put on a spring pageant, just a sun-filled backyard or a clearing in the woods