Category Archives: Walpurgis Night

As a Vapour, or a Drop of Raine

Tonight, this last of April, brings a welcome to summer. The setting sun will bring us Walpurgis Night, the Eve of St. Walpurga’s Day. These are obscure celebrations in the States, as is May Day, but the common thread tonight and tomorrow is that we are springing now into summer. Life is exploding everywhere around us as trees leaf out and bloom and as bulbs beneath the earth erupt into flowers that carpet the ground. In the Northern Hemisphere, we approach the gentle time of year.

What’s traditional to this night? Bonfires (translated easily to a backyard fire or an illuminated candle), and gravlax (a delicious cured smoked salmon from Scandinavia) and sparkling wine enjoyed outdoors. Outdoors is key, and for many, Walpurgis Night, or May Eve, is a night to spend entirely outdoors, gathering blossoms and greenery with which to decorate our homes tomorrow on May Day. It’s another of the holidays that the Puritans really disliked, for who knew what mischief folks would get to out in the woods alone at night? One result of this Puritanical distrust is that maypoles and May Day celebrations never took root here in this country quite to the extent that they had in Europe, much to our loss as a nation, and these traditions were tough to recover even in England, where the Puritans were in power from 1649 to 1660. During their reign, May Day was banned (along with maypoles and even Christmas). The most joyous place for a May Day celebration would seem to be Scandinavia, where winter’s darkness is most severe, and where one can imagine a day to welcome summer would be heartily received.

For the Celts, this is the entry into Beltane (pronounced bowl-tan-a). It is the cross-quarter day opposite Samhain, which comes at Halloween and All Souls Day. Being the opposite spoke in the wheel of the year, our perspective is opposite, as well: While at Samhain we were gathering in and shifting sights inward, now we are emerging and shifting sights outward. It is the time of growth and openness, a rebirth into the world: bursting forth, bursting forth. Rivers running, leaves and flowers exploding onto the scene, filling spaces in the sky and the landscape that were not long ago stark with winter’s emptiness.

A fire, a candle, gravlax, and sparkling wine. If you’ve none of these things with which to celebrate––or if you have them all––here is a good thing for your celebration. It’s a poem by our Book of Days hero Robert Herrick. It’s from his book Hesperides, first published in 1648, as the Puritans were rising to power in England. Read it silently to yourself, read it aloud to yourself, read it to someone you love. It is one of my favorite poems, a thing of beauty, a thing of this earth, and love, of course, calls us to the things of this earth.

 

CORINNA’S GOING A MAYING
by Robert Herrick

Get up, get up for shame, the Blooming Morne
Upon her wings presents the god unshorne.
                     See how Aurora throwes her faire
                     Fresh-quilted colours through the aire:
                     Get up, sweet-Slug-a-bed, and see
                     The Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree.
Each Flower has wept, and bow’d toward the East,
Above an houre since; yet you not drest,
                     Nay! not so much as out of bed?
                     When all the Birds have Mattens seyd,
                     And sung their thankful Hymnes: ’tis sin,
                     Nay, profanation to keep in,
When as a thousand Virgins on this day,
Spring, sooner than the Lark, to fetch in May.

Rise; and put on your Foliage, and be seene
To come forth, like the Spring-time, fresh and greene;
                     And sweet as Flora. Take no care
                     For Jewels for your Gowne, or Haire:
                     Feare not; the leaves will strew
                     Gemms in abundance upon you:
Besides, the childhood of the Day has kept,
Against you come, some Orient Pearls unwept:
                     Come, and receive them while the light
                     Hangs on the Dew-locks of the night:
                     And Titan on the Eastern hill
                     Retires himselfe, or else stands still
Till you come forth. Wash, dresse, be briefe in praying:
Few Beads are best, when once we goe a Maying.

Come, my Corinna, come; and comming, marke
How each field turns a street; each street a Parke
                     Made green, and trimm’d with trees: see how
                     Devotion gives each House a Bough,
                     Or Branch: Each Porch, each doore, ere this,
                     An Arke a Tabernacle is
Made up of white-thorn neatly enterwove;
As if here were those cooler shades of love.
                     Can such delights be in the street,
                     And open fields, and we not see’t?
                     Come, we’ll abroad; and let’s obay
                     The Proclamation made for May:
And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.

There’s not a budding Boy, or Girle, this day,
But is got up, and gone to bring in May.
                     A deale of Youth, ere this, is come
                     Back, and with White-thorn laden home.
                     Some have dispatcht their Cakes and Creame,
                     Before that we have left to dreame:
And some have wept, and woo’d, and plighted Troth,
And chose their Priest, ere we can cast off sloth:
                     Many a green-gown has been given;
                     Many a kisse, both odde and even:
                     Many a glance too has been sent
                     From out the eye, Loves Firmament:
Many a jest told of the Keyes betraying
This night, and Locks pickt, yet w’are not a Maying.

Come, let us goe, while we are in our prime;
And take the harmlesse follie of the time.
                     We shall grow old apace, and die
                     Before we know our liberty.
                     Our life is short; and our dayes run
                     As fast away as do’s the Sunne:
And as a vapour, or a drop of raine
Once lost, can ne’r be found againe:
                     So when or you or I are made
                     A fable, song, or fleeting shade;
                     All love, all liking, all delight
                     Lies drown’d with us in endlesse night.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying;
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.

 

Image: “The May Queen of New Westminster’s Annual May Day,” possibly by S.J. Thompson, British Columbia, Canada. Photograph, c.1887. The photograph comes with the following information: “The May Queen and her court. Girl at top left is Adelaide Ewen born in 1877. She was the daughter of Alexander and Mary Rogers Ewen. Isabel Macmillan Latta, the donor of the photo, was the daughter of Isabella Ewen whose sister is in this photo.” [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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May Be Welcome

Traditional reckoning of time would have us turn our thoughts toward summer tonight with Walpurgis Night and May Eve, but spring has been slow to come this year. Perhaps on this particular revolution around the sun we are better off enjoying spring now that it’s here and the daffodils, too, now that they are blooming. But this time of year is like this, isn’t it? A bit unpredictable––we never know just what it will bring.

Still, here are the things that some folks will be doing on this Walpurgis Night, this Eve of May… and perhaps you’d like to join in: They’ll be building bonfires. They’ll be drinking sparkling wine. They’ll be dining on bread and gravlax––a cured smoked salmon. Here’s what I’ll be doing: I’m stopping by the local Finnish bakery today and picking up a couple of those wonderful open-face sandwiches they make: a dark hearty Scandinavian rye, baked right there, spread with a homemade mustardy sauce then topped with sliced hard boiled eggs, smoked salmon and fresh dill, with a lemon wedge ready for squeezing. I’m getting one for me and one for Seth, and I’m getting sparkling wine to put in the fridge, just one bottle. And late Monday night, we will light a little fire in the backyard, pop open the wine, and enjoy those sandwiches in the firelight. With that, we will welcome May, and begin to turn our thoughts to summer… which is never very far away here in Lake Worth.

Though this night (named for St. Walpurga, whose feast day comes tomorrow) is a big deal in many places––particularly in Scandinavia and Northern and Eastern Europe––it’s not such a big deal here in the States. But this is our loss, and I think marking it in some small way would do us all good. Especially after a long winter. Surely there’s some sparkling wine to be found near you tonight, and as for the gravlax, well, if you served smoked fish dip and saltines, the spirit is still there. No bonfire to attend or backyard fire in the fire pit? An illuminated candle certainly will do the trick. There’s nothing wrong with simplifying celebrations if it helps us keep the day (or night, in this case).

It is a night rich in meaning, an important juncture of the year. It is a time of emerging, the opposite spoke of the wheel from Halloween, when we began our descent down, down into the earth. That juncture in late October in the Celtic tradition is known as Samhain, a Celtic cross quarter day. It marked the descent into winter, with growth happening slowly below ground, in roots. This one we come to now is known as Beltane. It marks the ascent into summer. Growth is more apparent, for it is visible and happening all around us in every budding tree and blooming flower and growing grass.

It was a few years ago on Walpurgis Night that Convivio Book of Days reader (and fellow letterpress printer) Leonard Seastone gave us a pointer in the blog comments about a good song for this night. It’s a traditional Swedish song called “Maj vare välkommen” (May Be Welcome), and that song will be part of our quiet celebration tonight, too, even if it’s just playing in my head. Leonard signed off on that Walpurgis Night using his proper Swedish name––Lennart Einar Sjösten––so he seems to me a good authority on these matters. I hope he’ll be celebrating tonight as Seth and I will be, and I hope you will, too, in some way, grand or small. Welcome May!

 

Image:Nature’s own Valborgsmässoafton in Vaxholmby Bengt Nyman. Valborgsmässoafton is the Swedish name for Walpurgis Night. The photograph was shot in Vaxholm in Sweden on April 30, 2009. [Creative Commons] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Corinna’s Going a Maying

Here in Lake Worth, in this land of subtle weather transitions, it’s easy to forget what season of the year it is. There is a Yellow Tabebuia tree in our front yard that is both shedding its leaves and bursting into yellow blossoms, as it is wont to do in the spring… and that alone gets confusing. Each day after work I walk up the front path to the door, leaves crunching underfoot. Look up, and it looks like spring, look down, it looks more like fall. But that’s the way trees operate here in Florida. And I bought some really good crisp Macintosh apples from the market last week, which also makes it feel like fall. They’re from Michigan, according to the sticker that’s on each and every apple, so that means they were harvested last September or October probably, and yet they’re firm and crispy and juicy… and this deliciousness, too, has contributed to my confusion of late.

But here are the facts, probably more obvious to those of you in more northern climes: Spring is here, and summer is on its way. And come Sunday, with the end of April, we come to another shift in the seasonal round of the year. By traditional reckoning of time, the wheel turns a notch toward summer. We are now halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, and we approach, in the Celtic tradition, the cross-quarter day directly opposite Samhain, which brought us our Halloween traditions. The Celts considered that night the start of winter. And now, at its opposite side of the year, comes Beltane, which brings the start of summer. (Both, by the way, are pronounced not as they appear: Samhain is pronounced sow-an with an emphasis on sow; Beltane is pronounced bowl-tan-a with an emphasis on bowl.)

These old Celtic things are distinctly European and truth be told, so are the celebrations that welcome summer at the start of May, for they did not translate well at all to the New World, which is unfortunate for us who live here. This time of year is a big deal in most of Europe, especially in the North Countries, where summer is so welcome after so many months of cold. And so on this Eve of May throughout the Norse countries there will be bonfires and there will be dinners of hearty bread and gravlax, a cured smoked salmon, and sparkling wine will be flowing. In the Dutch and German countries, it is Walpurgisnacht, Walpurgis Night, also designed to ring in summer. There is a long tradition connecting witches with Walpurgisnacht, which probably comes from the power of literature: Goethe titled one of the scenes of Faust “Walpurgisnacht” and in it, the witches hold a frenzied meeting upon the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Northern Germany; the scene takes place on the Eve of May amongst the bonfires of Walpurgisnacht. This could be yet another reason why this holiday is not very big here in the States: we have been handed a long, misinformed history when it comes to witches and the old earthbound religions.

Walpurgis Night takes us into May Day, and celebrations by light of day. Picnics are common on the First of May throughout Scandinavia, and in England, the May Day celebration begins early in the morning. It is, traditionally, the day that folks go out into the woods for amorous adventures. Robert Herrick, the great 17th century English poet whose words we invoke often in this Book of Days, offers us a glimpse of the day in his poem “Corinna’s Going a Maying,” as he prods Corinna to awake, be brief in praying, and worry not about her hair and dress, for time is wasting, and we must head out and go a Maying. Out to the woods, to gather hawthorn flowers and Lord knows what else all these lads and lasses will be doing, but one thing is for sure: They’ll be coming back with gowns once white, now stained with green. May Day was an invitation to romantic love. The earth, fully awake from its winter slumber, and we awake with it. The maypole, so potently symbolic: it took the hands of many strong men to plant it in the ground, erect and pointing toward the sky. You might imagine (and you’d be right) that the Puritans hated May Day as much as they hated Christmas. During their time in power in England, they banned Christmas and they banned maypoles, too.

I’m sure the Puritans would’ve hated this blog, too. My advice to you this Walpurgisnacht? Follow not their lead. Instead, get you to your local fish market and ask for gravlax or any smoked salmon (preferably fish they’ve smoked right there at the shop). If you’re in the neighborhood of a Scandinavian bakery, get you a fresh baked loaf of hearty dark rye bread (it’s nothing like the stuff in the supermarket). Hard boiled eggs and dill and lemon wedges will make a nice accompaniment. Don’t forget the sparkling wine. And mark the night by lighting a fire outdoors, or maybe just a candle or a lantern. Some poetry by Robert Herrick wouldn’t hurt at all. His is the kind of poetry you’ll want to read aloud. Read it to yourself or read it to someone you love, and if you can convince them to go a Maying with you, all the better. If in the morning you find grass stains on your clothes, you’ll be in the company of folks who have loved this night and this morning since time immemorial. Folks who love love and the things of this world and who wish to make of it a heaven on earth. That’s some fine company.

 

Image of a Yellow Tabebuia tree, just like the ones found here in Lake Worth, taken in Brazil by José Reynaldo da Fonseca. Tabebuia is a neotropical genus of about 100 species in the tribe Tecomeae of the family Bignoniaceae. The species range from northern Mexico and southern Florida south to northern Argentina, including the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (Dominican Republic, Haiti), Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, and Cuba. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.