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Long before May Day was established as International Workers' Day, the first week in May was set aside for outdoor festivities and the joyful celebration of nature. In pagan lore, the period is known as Beltane, an observance based on the Celtic sun god Bel during which people celebrate fertility (through symbolic union of the Goddess and the Great Horned One) and the thawing of winter snows by dancing and feasting in newly green, open-air places.
In the dewy gray of predawn, on a stretch of lawn at the western end of Golden Gate Park, a small group of a dozen friends emerges from the trees carrying musical instruments and food. Most of them wear ribbons and flowers in their hair and layers of white clothing, except for the Green Man, who is to act as the incarnation of the Great Horned One (or Robin Goodfellow, thought to be a predecessor of Robin Hood); he wears clothes of forest hues covered in sprigs of greenery, as well as feathers in his hair. The Green Man, whose job it is to act as king, priest, and fool for the day, is meant to pair with the Maid (an aspect of the Goddess), who wears a large garland of spring flowers in her hair, symbolizing the world's fecundity.
The small crowd unloads its bundles, shivering in the cold, and shoves lawn torches into the wet sod. As the musicians begin playing on fiddles and pipes, the group gathers inside the circle of flickering flame to sing a May song through feathery animal masks.
"Over the field comes the summer," sing the women weakly as the men respond with early morning laughs, stomping their feet and causing their bell-swathed ankles to chime. The Green Man and the Maid stand in the middle of the circle, holding ribbons above their heads that a woman in a blue mantle twirls around their joined arms.
"In May, the lusty season, flowers grow," sing the women.
"Ha ha ha," intone the men.
"And the wee people come to watch the show."
"Ha ha ha," shout the men in growing strength.
The couple is unwound and the torches are gathered for a procession to the beach. A woman in the group plucks grass to brush morning dew across her face (a superstitious rite that preserves beauty, she tells me).
A small campfire is ready and waiting on the sand. After a few failed attempts the damp logs spit to life as the dawn begins to brighten the steely sky. The group cheers, then huddles around the fire, sipping hot coffee out of thermoses. A few people twirl around the fire, but as the morning light intensifies, the magic seems to fade. Folks anxiously regard their wristwatches and make ready to leave for their workdays.
"More ceremonies will happen this weekend, I think," says the Green Man, "when people don't have to work. But it is a magical week." He rises, taking the hand of his Maid wife, and spins around the campfire, celebrating the growing heat of the day with the tinkle of bells. "Faeries are in the air."
A cloud of multicolored kites swirls and twinkles over Crissy Field like silvery moths ducking and diving in the sunlight. There are thousands of them, and as I draw nearer they take shape -- crimson butterflies, inky stingrays, amethyst snakes with gaping red mouths, azure windmills with fuchsia tails, centipedes with twirling feet and vivid eyes, and hundreds of bright yellow diamonds looking like a congress of beautiful insects. On the newly restored fields, children run laughing and screaming as they chase one another through the maze of kite strings and picnic lunches; music blares out of loudspeakers, mingling with the more temperate tunes carried by individual festivalgoers. There is food, music, sunlight, and laughter -- a perfect May celebration.
The fierce wind that whips across the field does nothing to weaken the heat of the afternoon; it only serves to carry the kites. A row of grand scarlet wind-sails cracks and billows in the breeze, drawing attention to another row of standing wind-catchers -- 8-foot-tall swaths of nylon colored like fire and striped candy, and cut in the shape of feathers to ripple and flutter with the bayside currents of air. An enormous red strawberry bounces on the turf as wind ebbs and flows through its spiky skin. Archways of rainbow-colored flags weave in the unseen currents like sea grass, and a sea-green praying mantis darts past my head, followed by a mad giggle carried by airstreams.
I lie down and melt into the grass, thinking this is how lying at the bottom of a tropical sea must look: There are bottom-feeding creatures, large bulbous beasts that are barely able to rise from the ground, and quick, sleek organisms that spiral through the heights, darting between rays of sunlight. Suddenly an enormous fish, created by New Zealand master kite-designer Peter Lynn, rises lugubriously in the air, its blue whiskers waving delicately as its white nylon teeth glint with menace.
"Scary fish," says 5-year-old Cele Khun, the same little girl who told me in singsong, "Kites, kites everywhere. Everyone is happy with kites in the air."
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