May Day celebrations have a long and storied history in Germanic lands and is associated with Springtime fertility for the land, livestock, and even people. In Scandinavia, it marks the start of the Summer half of the year but it is also a Springtime celebration, having been too cold and snow covered until around this time. It used to be common in southern Sweden for younger people to gather greenery at dusk to decorate the house with. They would then be paid in eggs for their hard work. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be all that common any more. Germany and England are best known for their customs of raising a maypole. The maypole isn’t put up until Midsummer in Sweden an is called a midsommarstång, or Midsummer Pole, instead. Other English celebrations include Morris dancing and the selection of a May Queen. Common throughout all of the Germanic lands is the lighting of bonfires on May Day Eve. Depending on where you are, celebrations might be on the first day of May or the last day of April. While it is sometimes hard to pick out exactly what customs are ancient in origin, it is very clear that this festival has deep roots in our Heathen past.
April 30th is said to be a night full of magic. German folklore holds that this was the night that witches gathered at the Brocken mountain in the Harz mountain range to celebrate and worship their pagan gods. Some rural southern German traditions include boys playing destructive pranks like trampling gardens, hiding possessions, or even marking private property with graffiti. Swedish folklore holds that if you gather seven different kinds of wild flowers and place them under your pillow, you will dream of the person you will marry.
Celebrations almost always seem to include the lighting of bonfires. Sir James Frazer wrote in his book The Golden Bough, “The first of May is a great popular festival in the more midland and southern parts of Sweden. On the eve of the festival, huge bonfires, which should be lighted by striking two flints together, blaze on all the hills and knolls.” It is commonly believe that these bonfires were set to keep predators away from livestock that had just been put out to pasture but were still too weak to defend themselves. It is common for Swedes to set off fireworks on this night as well.
For me, Försommar is one of those odd holidays that I don’t ever quite know what to do with, even with all of this history and meaning behind it. Living in the Southeast, Spring is already here. In fact, we are already covered in clouds of pollen as the grasses, weeds, and trees get on with the business of making more grasses, weeds, and trees. By the first of May we are already starting to see the mercury climbing ever higher, a reminder that it is definitely Early Summer (a literal translation of Försommar). With no room in suburban living to actually light a bonfire and fireworks being a sure way to annoy the neighbors, I have to settle for a more sedate Försommar celebration.
This year I am planning to focus less on the Springtime aspect of the holiday and more on the beginning of summer elements. This seems like a great time of year to make offerings to the alfar and land wights and to bless the home and ward it from summer storms. It is a time to celebrate with friends and family, to cook outside and laugh over a few beers. By time Försommar arrives, “Pollen Season” should be at an end and it ought to be safe to open the windows of the house and let some air in, not something that can be done in spring in the South unless you want everything coated with a fine layer of yellow-green dust that just doesn’t go away. It is this time of year when I want to focus on getting out of the house more and enjoying my yard (if not the yard work) and becoming more sociable. It’s time to come alive after so long a period of keeping to ourselves.
My celebrations this year will be small as I am reserving the big party for Midsommar, but those whom I invite over will be those that I want to see the most. They are the people I want to reconnect with the most and who I believe best understand what it means to “wake up” after months of seclusion. While April is a Springtime month, when the grasses are growing and the first blossoms of are out, it is still not a month where company is deeply desired. After many months of Winter, you need time to clean out the house and prepare for company to visit. For me, Försommar is the time when we declare our lives and our homes open for guests. As they say in New Orleans, let the good times roll!