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...a young man’s fancy

Food For Thought

My grandmother used to take great delight in quoting snippets of Tennyson’s poetry– especially bits about spring and love. She often had her own version of his famous lines, however. “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” morphed into, “...a young man’s fancy, and an old one’s not too bad.” And she warned us about what could happen once the headiness of new love wore off by saying, “He will hold thee, when its passion will have spent its novel force, / something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.”
A good many poets seem to have written some pretty flowery stuff about spring, so there must be something to it. Goodness knows, mankind has been going off the deep end with festivals, legends, myths, holidays and songs about spring since he first discovered flowers. Flora is just one ancient name for the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. Because spring was associated with fertility and rebirth, the Roman festivals became quite licentious and were nothing like subsequent celebrations involving children and maypoles.
The Greeks had a much more complete mythology than the Romans (who had borrowed many of the Greek myths and applied them to their own gods and goddesses.) The myth of Persephone survived as an elaborate story involving several gods and goddesses, a story of love and intrigue. It possibly evolved as a story to explain the changing of the seasons and a reassurance spring would return each year after winter.
Persephone was the daughter of Zeus, the father of the gods, and Demeter, goddess of the earth and agriculture. Hades, who was god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone and went to her parents for consent to marry her. Even though Zeus agreed to the match, Demeter did not. Disappointed but determined, Hades discovered Persephone gathering flowers one day and carried her off to the underworld. Demeter, the distraught mother, roamed the earth searching for her beloved daughter. She was so consumed with her search, she grew desolate and neglected her duties as goddess of agriculture. The plants all died and the people could raise no crops. The land was fraught with famine and starvation.
Seeing this could not be allowed to continue, Zeus relented and sent his messenger, Hermes, to the underworld to find Persephone and bring her back to her mother. Hades, of course, did not want to let her go, so he asked her to eat a pomegranate seed before she left. The pomegranate seed was considered the food of the dead and would compel her to return to Hades for a third of each year. Thus, in addition to being goddess of fertility, she became the goddess of the dead. Her return to the underworld each year symbolizes the winter season and she became the personification of the revival of life in spring.
While no one is certain of the origin of the maypole, it has been used for centuries in many parts of the world. Usually in connection with celebrations of spring, and May Day in particular, it is also prominent in other festivals throughout the spring. In England, May Day is observed as a sort of memorial to Robin Hood, who is believed to have died on that day. Villagers celebrate by dancing around a maypole festooned with colorful ribbons, and a May Queen is elected from among the local maidens. In many countries, the pole is decorated with long, colored streamers and the dancers perform an elaborately choreographed dance which, ultimately, weaves the streamers into a colorful pattern around the pole. In Germany, the pole is decorated lavishly with flowers before being raised at a prominent spot in the community. The maypole is part of a Midsummer’s Eve celebration in Sweden, where the entire community dances around the pole and the celebration lasts far into the night. The Midsummer’s Eve festival occurs on the day the noon sun is farthest north in the sky (around June 21) and is more or less a continuation of the celebration of fertility and agriculture.
In many European countries, May Day became a dual celebration consisting of both a children’s holiday in celebration of spring, and a day of holiday and recognition of workers, similar to our Labor Day celebration. Sadly, the charming practice of children delivering flowers and sweets to their elderly neighbors has all but died out.