May Day.

The first of May has always been about the May flowers brought by April showers: lily of the valley, violets and even dandelions picked from our yard (and sometimes tulips poached from the neighbor’s) all tucked into little baskets made from empty school milk cartons and left secretly for my mother on our back porch. The arrival of May 1 puts rainy, blustery April to rest and helps us believe that winter really is over.

As an adult I’ve explored my celtic roots and learned that the month of May is about
Beltane, which is celebrated in early to mid May. According to Wikipedia, “... Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season when the herds of livestock were driven out to the summer pastures and mountain grazing lands." The hills glowed with bonfires and May bushes of rowan or whitethorn were decorated with ribbons and flowers. It’s a “cross-quarter day,” midway between the vernal equinox and the solstice on June 21, our traditional first day of summer. For the ancient Celts, summer began in May and the solstice signaled “midsummer” -- the halfway point to harvest time! Interestingly, their year ends on October 31, but let’s talk about that closer to Halloween (one of my favorite days, in my favorite season).

For many Pagan/Wiccan folk, their Beltane is celebrated on May 1 with Maypole dancing and fertility rituals. It is a great excuse for getting romantic with your special someone ... or with yourself, if you happen to be the best thing going in your life at the moment. I also periodically check The Witches' Voice for information about Beltane and other ancient celebrations such as Lughnasadh (summer harvest), Samhain (Halloween) and Yule (winter, Christmas).

I recently learned that May Day is also known as International Workers Day -- essentially Labor Day for the world beyond the United States and Canada. And its origins are right here in Chicago. To oversimplify a complicated (and very interesting) story, in May of 1886 a rally at Haymarket Square (just west of the loop) in support of a strike in support of the 8-hour work day turned violent -- a bomb was thrown, shots were fired, and a number of civilians, strikers and police officers were killed. Eight men were charged with a police officer’s murder; six of them were sentenced to die. They became martyrs for the international movement toward an 8-hour workday, and May 1 became their worldwide day of commemoration. In other words, people died so we could work 9-to-5! To disassociate from those turbulent events, our Labor Day was established on the first Monday in September, while almost everywhere else in the world it is celebrated -- with similar turbulence -- today.

Of course, none of this should be mistaken for “
Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” the common distress call rooted in the French phrase “m’aider” meaning “help me!” A lot of us are in distress these days -- over lost jobs, the daunting task of finding new employment in a desiccated job market, shrinking retirement accounts, the sluggish housing market, swine flu. I’m sure many people are having moments when they feel like things are hopelessly spinning out of control and they want to shout “Mayday!” while they grope for the eject button and the parachute ripcord. We all deserve a break from the gloom, and I'm taking mine today. In keeping with my daydream of a lovely, peaceful place in the country, I shall recall my childhood celebration of May 1 as a day of flowers, sunshine (hopefully) and surprises. No matter what you do this May 1 ... Happy May Day to you!

Seeing stars.

Looking for a little nighttime thrill? If you happen to be awake very early on Wednesday morning -- say about 3:30 a.m. -- go outside to watch the Lyrid Meteor shower! Even though we don't have the darkest skies, being just outside of how-orange-can-we-make-the-night-sky Chicago, I've seen meteor showers before in this area and it's pretty darned magical! Dress warmly and bring something hot to sip. Then lay back on a lawn chair or lie down on a blanket, and point your eyeballs to the sky.

I like tracking meteor showers and other celestial events such as aurora displays (there was an amazing display that lit up the skies back in 2003, and almost everyone in the entire midwest missed it!), brighter than usual planets, International Space Station flybys, moon phases, and the like.  With the best of intentions, I get excited about meteor showers. I mark them on my calendar, and check the weather forecast in the hopes of having clear skies. Naturally they are best seen in the middle of the night when the skies are darkest and, not surprisingly, when I'm usually asleep. So I keep missing them.  Oh, you’re usually asleep in the middle of the night too? No wonder we keep missing these meteor showers!

If you don’t happen to catch any shooting stars, then you still might see a
satellite flyby of some sort on Wednesday morn. (Substitute your local zipcode at the very end of that link to see the flyby schedule in your 'hood.) Even though the flybys themselves aren’t tremendously spectacular -- really just a quiet steady light that cruises peacefully across the sky -- it’s pretty amazing to know there are people in that thing. Or you might literally see some space junk or a toolbag dropped by an astronaut. Again, mostly just specks of light traveling slowly overhead, but I am fascinated that this stuff is orbiting above us while we go about our business on the mother planet.

If you don’t happen to catch a flyby then keep an eye out for the Moon, Venus, Mars and Jupiter converging at dawn. Satisfy your inner astronomy geek at the SpaceWeather site, which has lots of great user-submitted photos of planets, satellites, and awesome pictures of the northern lights.

And if all that isn't enough for you even before you have breakfast, Wednesday is also Earth Day! Maybe you should take Wednesday off.