It might seem strange to wait until the middle of the month to describe May festivities, but May really does seem to come in the middle of things. One doesn’t really think of May as the beginning of anything until one reaches the end of it with Memorial Day, at least in the United States.
For many places in the U.S., there’s at least a month of school left, unless, of course, you’re graduating from something and then May is full of that. But May, itself, often seems like only a precursor to summer, not quite warm enough for swimming, but too warm to turn the heat back on. At least that’s how it seems in the Northeast.
May 1st used to be a major holiday and still is among some folks and in some parts of the world. Among the Celts it was the beginning of summer and is still observed by Neo-Pagans as Beltane, one of the most important holidays of the year.
Walpurgisnacht, or Beltane eve, is still celebrated in many parts of Europe as an important folk festival and was thought to be a time when witches gathered to strengthen their power around bonfires. Bonfires are still lit to celebrate the general ending of frosts (if you’re lucky) and the start of proper growing season.
May is one of the luckiest months of 2013 in India. The great festival of Parashuram Jayanti, celebrating Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Vishnu and especially beloved of the Brahmins, is celebrated this week (May 13-15). Parashuram is known for fighting against warlords who want to turn their power into tyranny against unprotected peoples, a still much needed objective in this day/time.
Parashurama’s birthday is also considered the Akshaya Tritiya, the Golden Day of Eternal Blessings when any new endeavor started forthwith will be especially blessed. Mother’s Day coincides with Akshaya Tritiya this year, which is great for mums, because Parashurama symbolizes complete devotion to parents (did you notice how he both murders his Mum to satisfy his Dad and then tricks Dad to get Mum back? See the links above–slick trick). Devotees give gifts of barley to the deity, take holy baths and begin new projects.
In the Jewish calendar, May is often the month of the first fruits, or the Festival of Shavuot. In the ancient kingdom of Israel, families would come to Jerusalem with their first fruits of the barley harvest to make their offering at the central Temple. It marks the 50th day after Passover and in many ways is an unofficial beginning of summer. (This year May 14-16)
In diaspora, the festival was transformed into a celebration of Moses receiving the 10 commandments from God on Mount Sinai, what is often considered to be the real beginning of the Israelites as a separate people. Today, the 10 commandments are read in Reform Temples after an all night vigil, commemorating Moses’ holy vision of the divine. It is also a time to celebrate converts to the faith as the story of Ruth, a Moabite embracing an Israelite heritage, is read.
The Christian festival of Pentecost (Western calendar, May 19, 2013) is an evocation of this ancient Jewish story. According to Christian tradition, the disciples were observing Shavuot (Pentecost is the Greek name for the holiday) when the Holy Spirit descended and they were given the inspired means by which to carry on in Jesus’ footsteps. From the Christian perspective, they were picking up where Moses had left off. Of course, Jewish tradition sees this quite differently. Liturgically, Pentecost signals the ending of the Easter season.
The Buddha’s birth is celebrated by many Buddhists on Vesak day which also often falls in May. Since Buddhists worldwide use so many different calendars, the actual date of Vesak varies, which is generally ok since, for Buddhists the literal day doesn’t matter that much. Ironically, Vesak is a huge festival in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, and is a day that allows the sizable Buddhist minority to make their presence known. Vesak is often observed as a day that commemorates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death in one large holiday.
Civic holidays of note in May include, as mentioned, Mother’s Day in the United States and Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican festival that, with the exception of one lone state (Puebla, specifically), is celebrated more outside of the country than within. For diaspora Mexicans it is more a day to celebrate the cultural aspects of being Mexican than it is a remembrance of one small victory against the French (since it was the only victory they had against the French at the time).
Most Americans (in the United States) wait impatiently for May to pass so they can get to Memorial Day, which is considered the unofficial beginning of summer and vacation. However, in many calendars and places, summer has already begun, and from a seasonal perspective, as of June 21, the days will start getting shorter again. So May is about enjoying what you have now, because it will all soon pass.