Peter Paul Markin, North Adamsville Class Of 1964, comment:
For those of a certain age, who came of age during the now ancient history Cold War, the images of May Day evokes pictures of the latest display of Soviet weaponry and of elite Red Army military units marching in step in Red Square in Moscow before some glowering delegation from the Communist Party Politburo and other invited dignities. Such pictures gave the usually information-starved and speculation-crazy Western Sovietologists plenty of ammunition for figuring out who was “in” and who was “out” in the internal party regime. At least until the next public display on the November 7th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution when the search for the elusive “musical chairs” would start all over again.
For others, more historically-oriented, perhaps, May Day evokes the struggle for the eight hour work day, the class struggle, and the heroic Chicago Haymarket martyrs. Those with a more recent interest in the day may evoke the continuing struggle for the recognition of immigrant rights, for full citizenship rights for those who have made it here, here more recently. Now all of these are worthy, if highly political, views of May Day and I certainly have no quarrel with those evocations. However, just for the few minutes that it takes to write this entry I wish to evoke another, more ancient, more pagan, vision of May Day that, strangely, may dovetail with the motives behind those more political expressions put forth on this day.
I, of course, refer to the ancient roots of the holiday or rather the pre-Christian religious significance of the day as a day of renewal and of homage to the virtues of spring. Especially for those hoary masses whose heritage stems from the British Isles. Under normal circumstances I would not necessarily be in a mood to reflect on this aspect of the day but a couple of things have set me to thinking about it. The first, as a result of having recently read a number of 19th century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritan-etched short stories, including “The May Pole Of Merry Mount,” got me thinking about that May Day pagan scenario and also about how deeply, even now, the formal Puritan ethic that frowned on such celebrations is embedded in our common cultural experiences. The second had to do with childhood reflections of our kid's version of May basket, May Day.
As to the first, whatever the “official” line is on Puritan history here in America and in England as laid down by the likes of Professors Perry Miller and Hugh Trevor-Roper, to name a couple that come mind, I am privy to a “secret” history of the doings of the old Puritan stock. While Hawthorne’s Puritans, as he sternly portrayed them, are no friends to the fun-loving that is rather more his hang up and his way to make a quick dollar on that saga from punishment fetishists who hide his works in some back bureau drawer and only take out on special occasions. The real “skinny” on the Puritans here and back in the old country is that they were not adverse to a little “good times,” just not in excess.
How is one to otherwise make sense of that little ménage of Pricilla and John Alden and Myles Standish down at Plymouth Plantation in the old days? Or the real story about Tommy Wollaston’s wood fetish over at the rolling hills of Merrymount. Or how about Governor’ Winthrop’s private dope stash that he tried to pass off as tobacco (and which he claimed, like some future bourgeois leaders who will remained unmentioned, he in any case did not inhale). And to complete the story on the other side of the ocean, in old Mother England, how about arch-Puritan poet and revolutionary John Milton’s open endorsement of concubinage, including, and I “reveal” this here for the first time, his own bevy of "ladies." “A Paradise within Thee, Happier Far,” indeed. For a long time the poem "Paradise Lost" was a book with seven seals. Now it all fits. And I should not fail to mention the other well-known arch-Puritan Oliver Cromwell whose well-hidden drinking problem (he called it his "tea," high tea, wink-wink) goes a long way to explaining those rash outbursts when Parliament was in session. Rump, indeed.
Okay, I am sure that the reader has had enough of my 'insight' into the rough stuff of the seamy edges of history. I will reprieve you with a final few thoughts about my own childhood relationship to this other May Day. Of course, I am something of a “homer” on this one, at least on the pre and post-Puritan English traditions since I grew up frequently passing the site of the Merry Mount May Pole (now on land used as a cemetery) at Mount Wollaston, which is a part of Adamsville, the town where I grew up. I knew this story as part of Adamsville town history from very early on. I am not sure whether it was through a teacher or by the local city historian, Edward Rowe Snow, but I knew all about old Tommy Wollaston and his crowd of "wild boys and girls". Sounded like fun, and it was.
On kid time May Day, as I recall, we were given little May crepe paper-lined baskets with a chocolate treat in it from one or another source, and in at least one year we danced around the Puritan-forbidden May Pole. I guess, even then, I had a secret desire that old Tommy should have won. Call me a pagan but that is the truth. But also note this, to kind of put this little “fluff” piece in perspective. Isn’t, in the final analysis, either the old pagan ritual or the newer May Pole festivity emblematic of the kind of thing that those of us who are trying to create “a newer world” aiming for. To make the world and its pleasures in common, for everyone. I think that I am on to something here. May Day greetings in advance from this space.