Last week, Helen Jane kept writing about May Day on twitter. I tweeted back at her about how, when I was in 3rd grade, I’d danced the May Pole at the May Day festival in Geyserville. Someone else, who I don’t know but must live in Geyserville, responded that Geyserville still had a May Day festival. I googled, I thought, I asked Dan if he’d be up for attending a (free!) quaint small-town festival. He was game, so on Sunday we drove to the ‘ville, to the Hoffman Picnic Grounds (formerly known as the Geyser Peak Picnic Grounds), where Geyserville’s May Day festival has been held since around 1991.
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May Day is a long-standing tradition in this little hamlet. Geyserville’s had a May Day celebration since at least the 1920s, and from then until the early 90s it was held on private land known as the Hoffman Grove. I looked forward to the May Day festival every year when I was a kid. There were sweet things to eat, and face painting. There were pony rides, barbecue, a Dixieland band with old men and brass horns in little white hats. Prizes could be won if you fished the right duckie out of the kiddy pool, and the fire department would compete with the one from Cloverdale to see which hose could push the ball better. (Because that wasn’t suggestive.) But the absolute best part of May Day was the dancing of the May Pole. I remember being very small, probably four or five, and thinking how big those 3rd graders were (in Geyserville, it’s always the kids from the 3rd grade class who get to dance the May Pole). Each boy got a small boutonniere; each girl a wreath of flowers for her head with ribbons hanging off the back. When I was little, I was so jealous of those big kids and couldn’t wait for it to be my turn.
In 1987, the year I skipped second grade and into third, I was completely miserable. Skipping into a class of kids, many of whom had been held back at some point so they were two years older than I was, in a school where there was only one classroom per grade so EVERYONE knew who I was and that I had skipped a grade, did not do wonders for my social life. In fact, it wasn’t until we moved to another town that I ever felt comfortable around classmates again. But I’d been looking forward to being in third grade FOREVER, because that meant on May Day it would be my turn to dance the May Pole. All the miseries and the teasing and the taunting and the shunning were swept aside in April, because April was when our morning teacher, Mrs. Garrett, began to teach us the May Pole dance. We heard the same music over and over. We practiced the motions around a bare pole before we got to use any ribbons. I remember that it was vastly important, during practice, that one get a “good” ribbon color. And then, finally, the day came. I wore my favorite dress, and I got a beautiful wreath for my head. It’s been nearly 25 years, so I don’t remember what color ribbon I got. But I still remember how proud I was that I got to dance in front of the whole town with my classmates.
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I wasn’t sure about this May Day festival. Living here these past several months, I’ve run into all kinds of people I hadn’t seen in decades, and I didn’t know how up for that I was on Sunday. I also wasn’t sure what kind of activities there might be, but the website said the May Pole would be danced at 1:30 PM so we got there around 1. The Picnic Grounds are no Hoffman Grove (the May Day festival, I learned by talking with one of the town’s patriarchs, had moved from the Hoffman Grove after Mr. Hoffman died and Mrs. Hoffman was concerned about liability issues with having hundreds or thousands of people on the land ever year), but they’re still pretty. We looked at the historical displays of photos and newspaper clippings. I recognized people with whom I’d gone to elementary school. I recognized my old bus driver. A Healdsburg resident toting a large camera and I struck up a conversation about the festival’s history and my memories of May Day Festivals Of Olde, and he was the one who introduced me to the Grizzled Town Patriarch. I even learned something less than savory about the land we lived on and the little cabin we lived in when I was growing up. Mr. Bosworth (said Grizzled Town Patriarch) mentioned that when he was young, his father and grandfather, town undertakers, had to collect the body of a hunter who had been shot in his cabin by “Indians” (his word) who were interested in robbing the man in order to buy liquor. (His story, once again.) The father and grandfather retrieved the body and brought it to town, and young men in their cups dared one another to see if they could run from the bar, across the street, to the basement where the corpse was held before burial to see how long they could stand the smell. The cabin where the hunter lived and was killed was, of course, the very same structure where I lived from birth to age 10. No wonder I saw ghosts when I lived there.
Grizzly death stories aside, we both found the event pretty charming. Everyone brought their kids, and there was a rock climbing wall and a bouncy castle. People were painting faces. People were selling ribs and other food. The fire department had a booth, but didn’t bring out any hoses. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Garrett, was there, and she remembered me (!) and told me she was still in charge of teaching the kids the May Pole Dance. We found a spot in the shade to wait, while Dan people watched and I tried to figure out whether that person over there was so-and-so’s mom, or my friend’s old neighbor, or whatever.
Then, at long last, it was time. I moved into the sun in good position for taking photos, and Mrs. Garrett went around to whisper to each kid not to stop dancing if the music stopped. One little girl said to another, in a Very Serious Voice, “It’s not like practice. It’s the REAL THING.”
Two little boys sat grinning under the pole to keep it upright, and then the same old tinny music came out of the speakers.
The ribbons flew, and the kids skipped, and the ribbons shook and the kids wove.
Here’s what the dance looked like.
And here’s what they made, at the end.
It was a ritual that’s been done for hundreds or thousands of years, along with the rabbits and the eggs and the flowers – all signs of fertility, spring, new life. It’s been done in Geyserville since the 1920s. And its still done, in 2011, by 8- and 9-year-olds who probably have no idea that this 32-year-old lady watched and remembered when it was her turn to shine in the May sun in front of the whole town, with the same teacher whispering the same thing in her ear: “Don’t stop if the music stops; just keep going.” Maybe when those kids are 32, they’ll remember their hair garlands and their ribbon dance, and maybe even then the third graders of Geyserville elementary school will be learning the May Pole dance.