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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day and ne Pelsbloom

(c) Kim Wheeler of
Ne Pelsbloom, de easchte Mei
    Many holidays just make more sense and are more fun for their context on the highly seasonal prairies of Agassiz and the Assiniboia.  One such holiday is May Day (de easchte Mei) – both highly controversial and widely, if quietly, celebrated by Prairie Mennonites across North America.
  More controversially known as International Workers’ Day, most of us grew up noting May Day as that day when the former Soviet Union paraded out the nuclear missiles and other military hardware designed to destroy God, Democracy, and the West.  As we grew more sophisticated, it was the day to determine who was in and who was out based on the line-up of Soviet dignitaries atop Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square.  Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the Socialist (or Soviet) celebration of May Day was designed to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, 04 May 1886, and not some sort of pagan, atheist Soviet holiday. 
    More personal, and more memorable to me was that other aspect of May Day – the celebration that spring had come to the prairies – a time to gather the first wildflowers, normally ne pelsbloom (aka Pasqueflowers, wind flower, danesblood, Anemone patens or prairie crocuses) and try to surprise our mothers, grandmothers and schoolteachers by placing poesies of furry, delicate lavender blooms on their doorsteps, knocking or ringing the doorbell, and then hurrying around the house to get away before they could catch us and tickle us for playing tricks on them – a sort of reverse trick-or-treating where the children left the treat as part of the trick.

    Often there were other flowers in the gardens – tulips, hyacinth and for us, Grandma’s superabundant wild almonds – but it was otherwise still too early for the lilacs, flowering trees and other prairie flowers – and garden flowers were too precious to pick for poesies.
Provincial Seal of Manitoba with Pasqueflower details.
    The seasons could be a bit extreme on the prairies – one day the hills would be covered with snow – the next, the driveways would be under new ponds of water, frogs would be croaking and the still brown hills would contain slight hints of furry purple flowers.  Every family has their own favorite place to pick the prairie crocus – often referred to as Crocus Hill – Teichroews had an entire bench of hills covered in them… but our place was on the old Schierling homestead – distant cousins we had never known but on whose farm we had grown up.  Just as soon as the ground became dry enough to not suck our rubber boots off in the ooze, we would be out in the pasture carefully examining Crocus Hill for signs of the hardy flowers.  To this day, I can still note every significant rock, badger hole, dip and rabbit run to be found on its steep slopes or in the coulees off to three of the four sides.  Our pasture was located in the former glacial moraine that once covered the Assiniboia region.  Unlike other hilly areas, the glaciers carved out deep gashes from the soft prairie soils and sandstones – so hills were defined by having had the surrounding soil removed from around them, rather than as mounds of earth rising above the plain – it is a landscape of glacial valleys, wide, eroded canyons and badlands. 
    Every year, there would be a celebration when the first almost open flowers were triumphantly presented to admiring mothers and grandmothers – soon one of their best china teacups would be filled with the tiny blossoms – but for May Day – it was a contest of volume – a challenge to bury tables, kitchens and window sills with the flowers.  To be sure, it was a short-lived joy.  As with most wildflowers, wild crocuses do not seem to last long – in fact, the transported ant infestation would often outlast the blossoms – but it was only for one day – May Day.
Mennonite Spring Flowers courtesy Ebay's StuffnSuch
    The joy and symbolism of the Pasqueflower is widespread.  Ne pelsbloom is the official flower for the province of Manitoba and the state of South Dakota.  It is a common theme in quilt patterns, embroidered kitchen towels and folk art.

    American naturalist Aldo Leopold is often quoted as saying of the pasque flower, "For us of in the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech."

    Native Americans were as inclined as are Mennonites to love the flower.  From them, we get nicknames for the flower as prairie smoke for the illusion their colour and furry texture give to the prairie hills, and for the haze created from the release of its long billowing seeds.  From the Native tribes, we also get the flower's symbolism for wisdom and old age (it is called napi or old man in Blackfoot) on account of the silvery seed heads that remain long after the blossoms have faded.
    For Christians, an even older symbolism exists.  The term "pasque" comes from the flower's relationship to the Easter or Paschal legends, due mostly to the timing of its bloom.  As one of the first heralds of spring (and Easter) it is commonly associated with promise, new life and regeneration.  Some say that the flower bloomed at the site of Christ's Crucifixion.  The general Catholic "white book" devotional indicates that the Pasque flower is a member of the buttercup family and takes its name from the French word for Easter.  It continues, "Legend says that the Pasque flower grew alongside the tomb of Jesus and witnessed the Resurrection."

    At Easter, eggs (and linens) boiled with the purple sepals are coloured green.

    May Day has had many different connotations around the world – but for prairie Mennonites, it is the celebration of Spring, sunshine and ne pelsbloom… no lily ever looked so beautiful nor was any rose better received than those humble denizens of the harsh prairie soil – one of God’s little pleasures in an otherwise often difficult, frequently barely fertile, always challenging prairie landscape.

Link to purchase or view Mennonite Spring Flowers Quilt

Crex Meadows -- Click for an excellent description of the Pasqueflower

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