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Those are the opening lines from The Echoing Green, by the English poet, William Blake. The music is by the American composer, William Bolcom, from a recording of his musical adaptations of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience -- among the most important poems about childhood in our cultural tradition. The Echoing Green is an appropriate song for the first of May, which has long been a holiday that celebrates nature's renewal. The ancient Romans held a flower festival in honor of the goddess Flora in the spring time. In fact, one of the earliest references we have of people skipping rope comes from Rome, where the practice was thought to be part of a game that young people would play to encourage the growth of crops in the coming summer. The higher you jumped over the rope -- which was made of flowers -- the taller your wheat would be.
The month of May itself is named after the greek Goddess Maya, the mother of the child god Hermes, the little sprout who is full of mischief and magic -- he's the creative life force that rejuvenates a played-out Olympus. In Western Europe in the middle ages, May Day celebrations were the most joyful and spirited of the year. In England, homes were decorated with flowers, trees were carried in from the forest and set up on the "echoing" village greens as May poles around which the whole community danced, braiding garlands of flowers together. As a token of their affections, boys in Germany and Switzerland would plant trees outside the windows of the maidens with whom they were madly in love. Young people in English villages selected a king and queen of the May who ruled over the day's festivities. Other villages collected hawthorne branches for good luck and protection of the home. But you had to be careful with hawthorne to leave it outside the house, and not to sit under it -- it was said that, if you did, the fairies would weave a spell around you. In America, in the towns that survived the Puritan disapproval of May Day festivals, children still make May baskets from paper, fill them with flowers, and hang them from the doorknobs of friends and family on the morning of May Day. And if you go to the Cornish town of Padstow on May 1st, they still perform that ancient galloping dance with that mysterious creature, the hobbyhorse -- thank goodness . . . and Maia.
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Copyright 2006© John Cech
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