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May 1, 2007

Margarette’s Going A-Maying

Filed under: Old Broads,poetry — by maggiec @ 2:42 pm

Originally published May 2003

Unless you’ve sat through an “Intro to British Lit” course, you probably don’t get the reference in the title. It’s to Robert Herrick’s 17th century poem, “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.” In the poem, the narrator beseeches Corinna to get up early on May Day (May first) in order to enjoy both the fun of the day and the beautiful flowers. Herrick, an Anglican priest, bids Corinna to hurry through her morning prayers so that she can run out to the fields and bring in the May.

In pagan England, May Day was a special day to celebrate fertility, and even in Herrick’s day, many of the rites associated with the day hark back to that original meaning. Dancing around the maypole, which symbolized, well, you can figure it out, is still done in parts of England and America. In his poem, Herrick’s narrator tells Corinna that while she has been lazy sleeping in, many a couple has become engaged, and many a “green gown” has been given, from rolling in the grass, we can infer. Many a kissing game has been played, and many jokes have already been told of locks being picked this evening!

Bringing in the May meant that the young unmarried men and women went out to the fields and brought back armfuls of blooming whitethorn branches, budding tree branches and masses of flowers. These were then used to decorate all the houses in the village or town so that the fertility of the fields is spread about. Of course, while out in the fields picking those flowers, the young men and women had a brief moment of unchaperoned freedom where kisses could be shared. Not quite the wild sex rites of the pagan days, but better than nothing, which is mostly what 17th century young people managed in the kissing line.

I have dim memories from my now-distant childhood of making construction paper baskets to fill with flowers and then hang on the doorknob on May Day. The practice was dying even then, but perhaps in some remote places, they still bring in the May.

But I’ve been thinking of this poem a lot in the past few days. Being an English teacher, things like that happen to me, but also, I was going to experience my first Swedish May Day. Well, actually, what I was experiencing happened the night before May Day. The last night of April is called Valborgmässoafton, or Walpurgis night.

Walpurgis night was traditionally the night German witches gathered on the Blocksberg, a mountain in Northeastern Germany. Like so much of German culture, this holiday made its way to Sweden (though as some Swedes have told me, it’s the Swedish culture and language that have made their way to Germany, though I can’t find any real authorities who say this!).

But now it’s the night when Swedes greet the coming spring. Now, this being Sweden, there’s no opportunity to bring in masses of flowers and leafy boughs. And it’s certainly far too cold to be playing kissing games in the fields. There are just now some tulips, daffodils and straggling forsythia blooming out there, and almost all of the trees are still bare. But this is the night when we can finally say that there won’t be any more snow! Probably. If we’re lucky.

Swedes celebrate with large bonfires, often with a speech by a local authority and then followed by songs welcoming spring sung by a local men’s choir. The night is topped off with fireworks.

Our local village was having a bonfire at the football field down the road from our house, and the football club would be selling snacks as a fund-raiser. I was game, and to make it even more fun, our neighbors invited us for a traditional “grill party” or barbecue before the fire.

Of course, it rained all week, so people were worried. Then on the 30th it stopped! But it was cold, just above freezing, and there was a fierce wind. Because of this, the grill was moved to the oven, but we had a lovely dinner. Then it was off to the bonfire! The wind had died down, and the temperatures nudged up a bit, but I was still wearing a winter coat. The crowd was amazing. It seemed as if every one of the town’s 1200 or so residents came out for the fire. Some of the kids were having impromptu football games while others goofed off around the bonfire. One of the people who stopped to chat said that this was the only time during the year that they actually saw people from the village, and it was like a huge cocktail party – just circulate and chat.

Cocktail party might be an apt description for the teens. I’m told that this is a day of copious alcohol consumption for people in their older teens and early twenties. There was none of that in our town, mainly because the drinking set would find a bigger, more interesting bonfire to visit.

We were also spared the speech, and we skipped the choir. I was looking forward to one, but our town is too small. At 9:30, when it was finally dark, the fireworks started. I’m not the biggest firework fan, and all I could think while watching is that I’ve seen far too many fireworks displays on CNN over the past few weeks. It made me think of bombing and shelling, and I didn’t like it. No one mentions the war at all anymore, at least not non-media types. I think we’re all burned out, but I seem to have been the only one saddened by the fireworks. After the display ended, we returned to the neighbors’ for a night cap, and then for us old fuddy duddies, Walpurgis night was over.

It was strange when I walked the dog this morning. Things looked different. I don’t know if it was a coincidence or some kind of Walpurgis night magic, but I swear, when we went out this morning, hedges that had been bare twigs yesterday were obviously green this morning. The barren farm fields that surround our village were covered in a green haze; and the trees were suddenly in bud. Coincidence or magic, I don’t care. It finally looks like spring, and I’m thrilled!

The Swiss had a similar rite to bid goodbye to winter, but as they are so much further south, it happened much earlier. Around the equinox in late March, it was time to burn the effigy of old man winter. We got involved through my son’s school. He and his school mates would build a larger than life effigy of old man winter, and then on the appointed day, parents got to join the march to the burning place. Four local schools met with their men, and this being an urban group, they prepared the bonfire in a cement roller-blading pit at a nearby park.

There was singing and a bit of circle dancing around old man winter, then whoosh! Up went the paper-stuffed men. This was followed by bread with jam and butter with a glass of juice for the children and wine for the adults. We thought about it a lot this year, and missed it, but last night’s bonfire was almost as much fun.

Of course, this morning is May Day, a national holiday here in Sweden. As in almost all of Europe, this is Labor Day. This was something new to me when I moved to Switzerland, but seeing as my husband has spent almost his entire adult life in the labor movement, on the local, national and international level, it was something we celebrated.

In Switzerland, we went on huge workers’ marches. Through the streets of Geneva we’d go, ending up at a large park where there was entertainment and food and beer stands. The day ended with sausages and beer, and with that kind of ending, I’m game. It was fun, though, as there would be time to visit with his work friends and always some kind of diversion when a political group decided to make an outrageous statement.

This year, here in Sweden, we are missing that. But in our municipality’s seat, the annual labor movement march run by the Social Democratic Party was being turned into a peace march followed by a speech by the county governor. After the speeches there was a family day planned with a petting zoo, flea market, horse rides, a puppet show and fun stuff like that. We decided to go on the peace march and then have fun.

But the rain that had stayed away yesterday was back. We decided that it wasn’t too bad, so after tying a bright red scarf around the dog’s neck to spiff him up for his first march, we were ready to go. On the way there, the skies opened up. It poured. By the time we reached the gathering spot, it seemed to let up. But as we sat in the car, looking at the brave group of marchers, we realized that no, it was still pretty much pouring. We decided to skip the march and drive to the end spot. It wasn’t a long march planned; the municipality’s seat is really just a small town. Within ten minutes, there were the marchers.

Then came the speech. This is what it sounded like, the condensed version:

Yadda yadda yadda yadda Saddam Hussein. Yadda yadda yadda yadda Saddam Hussein. Yadda yadda yadda yadda. Yadda yadda yadda yadda Dag Hammarskjöld. Yadda yadda yadda yadda certainly, Yadda yadda yadda yadda, Thank you!

Later my husband told me that it basically said that now with the end of the Soviet Union, the balance of power was no longer balanced. The US had too much power. We (the people at the speech, but on a larger scale the Swedes and the rest of the world) could not allow the US to be the world’s police anymore, as that results in perpetual war. Instead, we must allow the UN to be the world’s police, as it should be. The governor also mentioned that it was a member of the Social Democrat party from Sweden who worked alongside America’s President Wilson to encourage the formation of the League of Nations, so Swedes must remember their stake in the project of the UN.

Sometimes I think it’s good that I don’t understand the speeches. I might agree with the governor of some level, but then again, I might just have a few words to say to him!

After the speech, there was coffee and buns in old-fashioned house turned coffee shop and singing by a men’s choir! I was thrilled to hear them. I love a good choir, and there’s something so restful about men’s voices. Maybe it has something to do with the lower pitch, but I enjoyed that part very much. Didn’t understand a word, of course, but with music, it doesn’t matter as much.

After this it was still pouring rain, so we decided to take our sodden dog and go home. It managed to rain all day, as it has for two of the past five May Days that we’ve celebrated in Europe.

Perhaps I didn’t manage a “green gown” or an armful of flowers, but Margarette went a-Maying this year. While the English teacher in me thought of fertility rites, the spectator in me saw a big bonfire that reminded me of burning our high school rivals in effigy before the traditional Brewster-Carmel football games. Not quite the same thing at all!

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