GREAT BARRINGTON -- More than 100 revelers gathered on the grounds of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School on Wednesday to wake the Earth with songs and dance and celebrate the ancient rites of spring.
Whether it was the jingling of bells, stomping of feet or Mother Nature's own cheerful disposition, the environment provided a May Day backdrop of clear blue sunlit skies, bright green grass and colorfully budding trees.
As various groups of students, teachers, alumni and members of the Berkshire Morris Men dance teams sang traditional songs, did skits and danced around a hand-built 25-foot Maypole, school and community spectators sat back in lawn chairs or stretched out barefoot on blankets with smiles on their faces, many with flowers in their hair.
Archaic as this may seem for some, May Day is one of several heritage festivals regularly observed and staged by Waldorf/Rudolf Steiner school communities across the world.
Nursery school teacher Beth Oakley and kindergarten teacher Somer Serpe said their curriculum includes studying and spending time in nature. Their students, for example, are currently learning about and caring for 15 baby chicks in the school's new chicken coop.
"It's a lifestyle we're bringing back for them. Nowadays, many kids are living in a culture where they're not putting their hands in the dirt or shown how to pick up a soft chick," said Oakley.
"For them, this is joyful, and it will be an experience they'll carry on through the grades," Serpe said of the young students.
Though the dancing isn't eighth-grader Livia Casarsa's favorite May Day activity, she said, "I like to see the younger kids dancing around."
Her classmate, Ma'or Lev, said, "You learn pretty quickly, and it's really cool to see everyone here doing this."
May 1 is a holiday that has roots stretching back to medieval Europe, and is also celebrated as the Celtic and Pagan festival known as Beltane. Traditions include the gathering of flowers and green branches, the weaving of floral garlands and setting up a Maypole or May tree around which people dance and weave colorful ribbons. At some festivals, a May king and queen are crowned.
The Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School has two icons of its festival -- eighth-grade teacher and May Day master of ceremonies Christopher Sblendorio, who dressed in a top hat and vintage white tailcoat, and "The Green Man," a jester-like green character who entertains the crowd and leaves flowers on desks.
"Celebrating that we've made it through another New England winter connects us to the Earth, our human past and our human present, our community," said Sblendorio.
As fifth-grade children danced around the Maypole, wrapping it with criss-crossing ribbons of yellow, pink and other spring colors, Sblendorio encouraged the audience to focus on a child and offer them an intention, like leadership, courage or generosity.
"As they weave the ribbons that child will weave that quality into their lives," he said.
Fascinating facts about May 1
-- May Day, also known as the Celtic and Pagan holiday Beltane, celebrates the arrival of spring. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Puritans of New England considered the celebrations of May Day to be licentious and pagan. They forbade its observance, which is why the holiday isn't as widely celebrated in American culture.
-- In the 20th century, May 1 became associated with the international holiday also known as May Day, Workers' Day or International Workers' Day, commemorating struggles and gains of workers and labor movements.
-- In the U.S., President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Law Day into effect on May 1, 1958, to recognize the importance of the rule of and role of law in the country.
-- Workers' Day and Law Day have also been interpreted to serve as a day for political protest and rallies for civil rights.
-- The term "mayday" is an international radiotelephone signal word used by aircraft and ships in distress. It is said to have evolved from the French pronunciation of the phrase venez m'aider, meaning "come help me."