On this May 1st in northern Idaho, spring has just arrived. The deciduous shrubs and trees are barely flushed with leaf buds, and the sun is putting in its first appearances, even though the wind is chilled by snow on the surrounding mountains. To those of us who have endured six months of unrelenting gray, the vision outside our windows is water to the thirsty soul. It seems indeed worthy of the May Day celebration of spring’s return.
Originally, a celebration of Flora, the Goddess of Spring, plants played an integral part of the Mayday holiday. In the Middle Ages, the Europeans continued the ancient festivities by incorporating the use of tree branches and flowers which were brought from the newly awakened forest to decorate the village green. Appropriately, Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum, was gathered in the deep woodlands, where it bloomed in May and June, and steeped in wine to make May wine for ye merry old Englanders. Little baskets were filled with wildflowers to leave in the doorways of neighbors or loved ones.
This association of May Day with the goddess Flora, was not lost on those famous reformers, the Puritans, who eschewed its celebration, along with other holidays laced with pre-Christian vegetation, such as the Christmas tree.
Many of our Christian brothers and sisters are still suspicious of those holidays and activities that smack of pagan rites, and this suspicion extends to the practice of herbalism as well, due to the fact that pre-Christian Europe abounded with herbal healers and herbal ritual. In fact, many modern Christian scholars, theologians and philosophers are convinced that herbalism, itself, is nothing more than a hangover from ancient nature worship and a part of the New Age neopagan culture that worships the creation and not the Creator.
In fact, this debate goes back to the days of the early Catholic Church. This quote taken from the Monastic Medicine web site http://smokh.org/christiam_home_doctor.php seems to explain the Catholic conclusion of the matter:
Upon the Blessed Virgin’s assent to be the Mother of the Divine Word Incarnate, and through Christ’s expiating sacrifice on the Cross, herbs and flowers, along with the rest of the world and nature, were freed of their associations with the false pagan deities imposed upon them by previous generations. Thus liberated, herbs and flowers, in their created purity, beauty and varied forms from the hand of God, were then given true Christian association
If you are curious, the above web site also gives brief histories of famous Christian herbalists from the past.
As a Protestant believer, I would couch the matter in slightly different terms, but I would agree with the results. My conclusion would be something like this: If nature were cursed due to the fall of the first Adam, then the victory of Christ, the last Adam, over death would redeem nature, as well as humankind. And indeed, I would have to agree with what I think the Catholics were thinking–that is–that the viewpoints of human beings, in part, impose a polluted view of the natural world, and when humans are redeemed, their view of the natural world is likewise redeemed. But, I do believe that, in some way, nature, itself was cursed, is suffering, and will enjoy a future redemption along with humankind due to the work of Christ.
This means, that whatsoever is of faith is not sin. If we believe that the Lord, in His goodness, has created the herb of the field for the healing of the body, then we may benefit by the same herbs that the Druids discovered in their northern latitudes, though we should give glory to the Lord of Creation, and not to the trees worshiped by the Druids.
Many sources speak of the “christianization” of the May Day holiday, as if it were simply a matter of exchanging one cap for another on the proverbial goddess, but in actuality, it was a matter of who was to receive worship for the delights of the natural world.
If we go back to the May Day celebration, we shall see that there was a certain wisdom at work in the traditional choice of beverage. May wine was steeped with the plant Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum, a plant that Gerard credits as a liver tonic. It was believed to clear the liver of biliary obstructions. It was also considered a stomachic, along with other properties. Wine was a common menstruum, or solvent, for herbal plants in those days. Medicated wines were used more often, then, to make herbal tinctures, whereas in modern times, we use a high-proof grain alcohol, which has a better shelf life. Because the herb bloomed in May and June, at winter’s end, it was a logical choice for human bodies that were sluggish from a long winter of eating heavy foods when fresh fruits and vegetables were limited in supply.
So, though we are Christians, we may benefit from the same plants used by humans the world over, as well as enjoy a natural world that the Lord saw was “very good.” And if that entails a little dancing around the maypole and little baskets of flowers on the doorstep, I’m all in favor.