Most years I could take or leave the annual Heart of the Beast MayDay Parade. Back in the day, I used to live a block from the parade route and not only did my share of spectating, but also participated in the revelry for many years by playing “You Are My Sunshine” on the harmonica roughly 6,000 times as the parade lumbered along Bloomington Avenue to Powderhorn Park—where the sun god crossed the lake to the beat of drums on the far shore, officially banishing winter and ushering in a fresh season of glorious green.
I preferred the parade when it was smaller and sillier and significantly less popular, so it’s been a few years since I’ve witnessed the spectacle firsthand. This year marks the parade’s 40th anniversary, however, so I’m going to make a point of being there to celebrate—for several reasons.
There’s the anniversary, yes, but more important is the opportunity, following this long and brutal winter, to truly appreciate what this parade is all about. Ecstatic pagan festivals like MayDay are based on ancient rituals performed around the time of the spring equinox, and they are replete with symbols of rebirth and new life—the Easter egg included.
We are all sick of the cold and snow, but as much as we complain about winter, modern life largely insulates us from Minnesota’s harsher realities. Consider what the past few months would have felt like to someone who didn’t have central heating, Uggs, or Starbucks: You’ve burned every scrap of wood in a five-mile radius, your last goat died in February, the kids are tired of corn and prairie-grass soup, the toe you lost to frostbite is throbbing again, and the wind feels like a jagged icicle stuck in your chest. You’re starting to think that maybe it’d be better to lie down and go to sleep forever, to end the pointless suffering, when lo!, what is this? Could it be? A warmish sunny day?
It’s no secret that pain and pleasure go together: the worse the pain, the greater the pleasure when it is finally over. It’s hard to imagine how intensely grateful people in the past must have been to see the first hint of spring, because it didn’t just signal the end of an annoying winter—it was a lifeline to hope and survival. Without it, they would have surely died, and many did, making the eventual arrival of new crops and livestock that much more meaningful.
Today, the MayDay Parade and Festival is, for many people, an entertaining excuse to get the kids outside and see some big puppets. Sure, vestiges of the ancient rituals it mimics are still there, and Heart of the Beast drums up a little of that joyous intensity of old. But that’s a hard trick to pull off in this day and age. My hope is that this year will be different, because the winter was so nasty and because all of us secretly fear that there might be more “old-fashioned” winters to come.
There’s a reason “mayday!” is what people scream in an emergency. We’ve felt the pain. Now it’s time to enjoy the pleasure—and wish the MayDay Parade a happy 40th.