By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration begins on sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always figured their days from sundown to sundown. And sundown was the proper time for Druids to kindle the great Bel-fires on the tops of the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in Ireland). These “need-fires” had healing properties, and skyclad Witches would jump through the flames to ensure protection.
Frequently, cattle would be driven between two such bonfires (oak wood was the favorite fuel for them) and, on the morrow, they would be taken to their summer pastures.
Other May Day customs include: processions of chimney-sweeps and milk maids, archery tournaments, morris dances, sword dances, feasting, music, drinking, and maidens bathing their faces in the dew of May morning to retain their youthful beauty.
In the words of Witchcraft writers Janet and Stewart Farrar, the Beltane celebration was principly a time of “…unashamed human sexuality and fertility.” Such associations include the obvious phallic symbolism of the Maypole and riding the hobby horse. Even a seemingly innocent children’s nursery rhyme, “Ride a cock horse to Banburry Cross…” retain such memories. And the next line “…to see a fine Lady on a white horse” is a reference to the annual ride of “Lady Godiva” though Coventry. Every year for nearly three centuries, a sky-clad village maiden (elected Queen of the May) enacted this Pagan rite, until the Puritans put an end to the custom.
May Day is also an important day for the labor movement.
At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor), proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” The following year, the FOTLU, backed by many Knights of Labor locals, reiterated their proclamation stating that it would be supported by strikes and demonstrations. At first, most radicals and anarchists regarded this demand as too reformist, failing to strike “at the root of the evil.” A year before the Haymarket Massacre, Samuel Fielden pointed out in the anarchist newspaper, The Alarm, that “whether a man works eight hours a day or ten hours a day, he is still a slave.”
Despite the misgivings of many of the anarchists, an estimated quarter million workers in the Chicago area became directly involved in the crusade to implement the eight hour work day, including the Trades and Labor Assembly, the Socialistic Labor Party and local Knights of Labor. As more and more of the workforce mobilized against the employers, these radicals conceded to fight for the 8-hour day, realizing that “the tide of opinion and determination of most wage-workers was set in this direction.” With the involvement of the anarchists, there seemed to be an infusion of greater issues than the 8-hour day. There grew a sense of a greater social revolution beyond the more immediate gains of shortened hours, but a drastic change in the economic structure of capitalism.
Back here in the 21st Century, it’s been quite a week for news.
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