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June 17, 2024

May Day at St. Angelica

By Dan Mulhollen

It happened as it did every year. There was no planning committee, no master of ceremonies. The workmen simply gathered shortly after sunrise and began building the stands and pavilions. These would be same ones they would be tearing down just before nightfall.

I looked out from my second floor office and saw them beginning work on the bandstand. That was always the first thing built for the band was eager to practice before things got underway. I was about to sit down at my desk and confront the paperwork. The hammering alone would make that difficult. The band would make that impossible. So I grabbed my coat and walked downstairs.

I stepped outside about then and was greeted by the high-pitched squeal of a trumpet whose owner had yet to master the fine art of embouchure. I walked towards the bandstand to watch the spectacle. Half of them looked blankly at the sheet music. They waited for the few who could read music to start playing, and then they would carry on, playing by ear and memory.

I walked towards the booths. As each was built, it was immediately taken by a vendor. The products were all hand-made; articles of clothing, candles, jams and preserves, and an occasional oddity kept well-hidden from the view of any passing minor.

Two Gypsies had set up booths at opposite ends of the row, and had their crystal balls and tarot cards ready. I chuckled, remembering one year they had accidentally placed their booths near one another and a nasty argument quickly erupted over which of them was the better fortune teller.

Only a few outside vendors were allowed to sell their wares. These were mostly food vendors selling ice cream, sausage sandwiches, and beer. Technically, the last item was illegal here, but not surprisingly, nobody ever complained.

As opening time approached, the band seemed to gain some small level of competence. Most were now doing a reasonable job of keeping in time; although when a march was followed by a waltz, a few people seemed befuddled the first dozen or so bars.

The entire populace seemed to step outside as if on cue. Men wore their finest flannel suits; blues and violet seemed the most fashionable colors this year. Many wore silk top hats and tipped them upon meeting friends. It was amusing to me that men who wore little other than denim 364 days a year would dress so formally this one day a year.

The women's clothing while fashionable, was rather less flamboyant than the men's; simple blouses and skirts were most common. The colors were similar to the men's choices, but lighter in tone; azure rather than royal, and lavender rather than mauve.

Some of the younger wore dresses cut so that their breasts were exposed. However this seemed more of a boast than an advertisement. An inexperienced young man might be so dazzled by the sight that he'd walk his bicycle into a fruit stand, overturning an apple cart. But most simply smiled appreciatively at the exposed flesh and continued on their way.

I sat down at a park bench and enjoyed the whole view. The origin of the festival was a mystery. I'd personally checked through many dusty volumes of archival records. The only thing I could find was that fire had destroyed all the records between 1863 and 1895. There was no mention of a May Day festival in older volumes, some dating back to the early 1700s. Yet all of the records since 1895 spoke glowingly of the festival.

Of course there were speculations. The most common was that of a "great fire of 1895". The fact that only five books out of over one hundred were destroyed makes that unlikely, at least to me. Another theory has someone wanting to destroy any mentions of him being a resident of St. Angelica. Again, this was unlikely considering how much everyone knows about everyone else's life.

Those prone to paranoia have their own theories, and were not shy about telling them in great detail. The most amusing would have you believe the community fell in with Satan in 1963 and the festival was to celebrate his being driven away.

It will be a full day, with foot races and croquet. Booths with games of chance.. The traditional May Pole dance. And eating and drinking from beginning to end.

Towards the end there will be the pageant for May King and May Queen. Only new residents are eligible to enter, while everyone gets to vote for one man and one woman. Each entry will have to display their intelligence, eloquence, and physical attractiveness.

The two winners will be crowned with all the pomp of a medieval ceremony. Knights in imitation chain mail standing guard as page boys (either adolescent males or young women dressed as such) escort the new King and Queen along the procession route. The mayor will serve as archbishop and preside over the ceremony.

Then the King and Queen will be taken to a private suite where they will have the night to enjoy fine chocolates and champagne while they consummate their victory; being considered wed for the course of the year.

I stood up and looked over at the band. They were still struggling but as good as they would ever get. I chuckled and walked over to the wrought-iron fence surrounding St. Angelica and at the high chain link fence topped with razor wire further back. It was all a nice ruse; substituting words like "resident" for "patient" and "mayor" for "Chief Administrator".

St. Angelica's Home for the Mentally Ill was almost like a real community. The lines dividing hospital from town had been blurred for so long that even the most reform-minded administrators were eventually seduced by the subtle madness that permeated the complex.

As for me, I always wear a white lab coat to remind me of my profession and not be pulled further into the madness than I already am. I pulled the sleeve back to look at my watch; 12:45. In fifteen minutes I'd be counseling a seventeen year old who had attempted suicide. It would be a short session as she was in the running to be May Queen, and no longer had any thoughts of harming herself. How quickly some fall in, I mused.

-- Dan Mulhollen

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-04-30
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