The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days
See also Beltane, Floralia, Roodmas, and Walpurgis.
Earth’s innate sexual energy and forces are at their height on May Eve. The intent of this festival is to celebrate these forces and partake of their power. If May Eve could be characterized in one word, it would be “joy” or perhaps “ecstasy.” Traditional rituals include bonfires, dancing around a maypole, gathering May morning dew and the crowning of a May Queen and sometimes also a king.
The May festival is a time for romance. Prohibitions against getting married in May (allegedly it’s unlucky) didn’t exist prior to Christianity. The month of May was eventually dedicated to Mary and thus to chastity. May was traditionally understood as time of rampant sexuality. Babies conceived at May Day will, if brought to full term, be born around Candlemas/Imbolc. Children born on May Day can allegedly see and converse with fairies.
Although May Eve is a fire festival complete with bonfires, it was also a water festival. Special herbal baths were known as “May Baths.” Sometimes these were solitary but other times communal or group celebratory rituals.
On May Day, the radiant sun emerges to celebrate with its beautiful bride, the flower bedecked Earth. Although sex was never as indiscriminate as the Church alleged, sexual activity was once part of May Eve traditions. It is a festival that celebrates sexual energy as well as the potential for fertility (see Floralia, page 201). Sex was understood as a sacrament. By coordinating sexual activity with that of the world’s male and female principles (the Sun and the Earth or fire and water) magical energy was generated, which was believed beneficial to individual participants and also to all of creation, to the whole Earth and thus to the entire community. Sex was not perceived as potentially sinful but as potentially holy.
Once upon a time, really way back when, major festivals were the only times when different tribes would rendezvous and intermingle. Perhaps the seeds that would eventually become distorted in witch-hunters’ fantasies of orgiastic sabbats were first laid here. Throngs of people would converge at crossroads (there weren’t many other roads!) or places of power; no need for a written calendar, if one follows the sun, the equinoxes, solstices and the days related to them are simple ones of which to keep track. It was the time to meet and greet and for what still exist as “marriage fairs.” These were crucial because everyone within a small, closely knit tribe might be closely related; in terms of the need for genetic variety, these festivals were the time to find a mate, whether permanently or temporarily. Traditions lingered long after the technical need existed.
Communities would elect a King and Queen of the May who embodied the best of the male and female principles. The Maypole represents the unification of female and male energies; it marks Earth’s pregnancy. May Day also contains vestiges of old tree worship—as demonstrated most obviously by the Maypole, a survival of tree worship and old phallic cults. The Maypole was once burned after the completion of festivities, similar to the Yule log. Ashes were kept as amulets for fertility.
Dancing around the Maypole, together with singing and feasting, are all traditional components of May Day. Special aromatic beer and May Wine are often part of the festivities.
May Eve is the night when witches traditionally gather to dance and celebrate. Conversely their enemies know where to find them. Perhaps the custom of marking the holiday by dressing children as witches began as a cover; if everyone is dressed as a witch, then it can be difficult to determine which are the real ones.
In some cases tables were turned and May Eve festivities were intended to ward off, rout out, harm or even permanently eliminate witches.