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Being at Ease: On May Day and Other Rituals of Rest

In Celebration

You might don a cotton sash and
crown of magnolia, parade through the city center
throwing flowers to the revelers. You might
turn down a side street to find a small park,
stretch out on the green grass
in the sun as the sounds of the festival
ring clear like a bell in the background.
Either way, you've earned your rest,
this harvest of stillness, this steady mindful breath.

— Matthew Kosinski

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. In honor of Cotton Magnolia's rejuvenating energy and traditional May Day festivities, we're surveying celebrations of rest — and how we can learn to make space for relaxation in our own busy lives.

Is the weekend a thing of the past? Sure, Saturdays and Sundays are still on the calendar, but what was once a 48-hour block set aside for relaxation is being swallowed up by irregular work schedules and after-hours demands. Thirty-four percent of employed Americans routinely work on the weekends — 67 percent for those who hold more than one job.1 A similar number of us work on holidays,2 and among those who are lucky enough to have paid vacation time, half don't use their whole annual allotment.3

As work dominates increasingly large swaths of our days, we're left with precious little time for the things that make life truly beautiful — or even possible: family, friends, hobbies, even ourselves, and our planet.

Photo by Iga Palacz; Source: Unsplash

In response, a growing number of people are campaigning for more time off work, with a particular focus on making a four-day workweek the new normal.4 In a sense, this movement is a continuation of a long and illustrious human tradition of recognizing the necessity of rest. Even our ancestors, for whom working in the fields was literally a matter of life or death, knew labor without leisure was no way to live. For evidence of that, look no further than the May Day celebrations that have been part of European folk tradition for centuries.

More Than Maypoles

A festival welcoming the unofficial start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, May Day has been celebrated on May 1st in countries across Europe for centuries. Like most folk traditions, the holiday has murky origins, but many historians believe May Day as we know it — the flower crowns, dancing around the maypole, etc. — stems from a fusion of two earlier predecessors.

The first was the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane. Held on the first day of May, Beltane ushered in the summer season with rituals designed to safeguard livestock, promote crop growth, and strengthen the communal bonds between people. Many Beltane customs revolved around the protective power of fire — like the ritual of driving cattle between two bonfires, believed to ward off evil and keep the animals safe when out to pasture5

From the University of Maryland Digital Collections: "A postcard featuring a photograph of May Day Celebrations in Long View Park, Rock Island, Illinois, circa 1907-1914."; Source: Wikipedia

May Day's other precursor was the Roman festival of Floralia. Traditionally celebrated between April 28th and May 3rd, Floralia honored the Roman flower and fertility goddess Flora with theatrical performances and competitive games called the "Ludi Florae."6 When the Romans conquered the British Isles in the first century CE, the customs of Floralia began to blend with the traditions of Beltane. The result of this cross-pollination is the blend of superstition and revelry that characterizes May Day today.7

As May Day spread across Europe, it took on varying regional characteristics — yet each local spin on the holiday centers around outdoor celebrations in anticipation of a bountiful growing season. In Germany's Harz Mountains, for example, May Day was usually associated with fresh-air parties and the motto "Tanz in den Mai" ("Dance into May"). In Romania, people held woodland feasts of roast lamb and mugwort wine. In some areas, it was custom for women to do neither fieldwork nor housework on May Day. Even beasts of burden were given a break: Superstition said animals that worked on May Day — and their owners — would die.8

“People depended on a solid crop — but they also recognized emotional nourishment was just as important as having food on the table.”

For our agricultural ancestors, the summer months portended grueling work in the fields; 16-hour workdays weren't unheard of.9 It would have been easy under those circumstances for our predecessors to focus solely on the struggle ahead. And yet, they kicked the season off with song, dance, and feasting. Perhaps they wished to appease the gods to guarantee a good harvest come fall; maybe they recognized this was their last chance to be frivolous for a while. Either way, May Day stands as a monument to the necessity of balancing labor and rest, work and reward. Sure, people depended on a solid crop — but they also recognized emotional nourishment was just as important as having food on the table.

Maypole in Bavaria, 1848.; Source: Wikipedia

In more recent times, May Day has even taken on an explicit association with the labor movement. In 1886, May 1st was the start of a nationwide strike by U.S. workers. A few days later, a confrontation between workers and police in Chicago turned violent when a bomb exploded on the scene, killing seven. In recognition of this tense but important moment in American workers' rights history, known as the Haymarket Affair, unions and workers' groups declared May 1st International Workers' Day.10

The political dimensions of rest expand beyond the coincidental May Day connection, too. In recent times, a broad spectrum of activists and organizations have drawn attention to rest’s role in healing trauma and resisting an exploitative culture of urgency and exhaustion. For example, The Nap Ministry, led by artist Tricia Herse, facilitates workshops and “collective napping experiences” to explore sleep deprivation as a matter of racial and social justice.

Even God Needs a Break

Whether we're talking about folk festivals or labor struggles, all of these May Day traditions articulate an authentic truth about people: We weren't meant to operate as nonstop productivity machines. We need time to slow down, to unwind. Rest is as integral to our individual and social well-being as work.

This is a truth recognized by some of the world's major religions, which weave rest into their core tenets. Both the Christian and Jewish faiths institute a ritual day of rest every week, set aside to thank God and honor the world he created.

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments; Source: Wikipedia

Known as "Shabbat" or "the Sabbath" in Judaism, from a Hebrew word meaning "rest," this day is observed from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. The practice is first mentioned in Exodus, one of the books of the Hebrew Bible, which tells the story of how the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt. While the newly liberated Israelites are wandering through the desert, God gives them the Ten Commandments, one of which explicitly mandates regular rest:11

    Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the L‑rd your G‑d. On it you shall not do any manner of work—you, your son, your daughter, your man-servant, your maid-servant, your cattle, and your stranger that is within your gates. For in six days the L‑rd made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the L‑rd blessed the Sabbath Day, and hallowed it.12

That last line harkens back to the Hebrew Bible's Book of Genesis, according to which God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The Sabbath, then, reflects this divine rhythm: Rest was actually a central component of the world's very creation. Christianity, which developed from Judaism, shares many of the same holy books, including Exodus and Genesis, so Christians also celebrate a weekly Sabbath. However, the Christian day of rest tends to take place on Sunday, and it mainly consists of attending church services on that day.13

The fifth day of creation, as depicted in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle; Source: Wikipedia

The Jewish Sabbath also contributed to the development of a five-day workweek. While Sundays had long been a day of rest in the Western world, the practice of granting both Saturdays and Sundays off originates with the efforts of American labor unions in the early 20th century. Specifically, these unions wanted to ensure that Christian and Jewish members were allowed to take their respective Sabbaths. The Great Depression came along shortly after this early advocacy for the five-day week began, and many companies adopted the two-day weekend because they could no longer afford to pay for six days of work anyway. From there, the weekend was born.14

Lying Fallow

Even if you don't practice Christianity or Judaism, you're likely familiar with the Sabbath's secular offshoot, the sabbatical. An extended break from work, sabbaticals first gained popularity in American universities during the 1800s. These perks were designed to attract top scholars by offering them a year off every seven years to rest, relax, and pursue additional projects outside their routine academic work.15

The concept of a sabbatical didn't evolve from the Sabbath day itself, but rather from a related Jewish custom called "Shemita," also known as "The Sabbath of the Land." The Jewish Torah establishes a seven-year agricultural cycle, and on the seventh year, the land is supposed to remain fallow. People aren't supposed to plant, plow, or work the land in any way, and any produce that grows during this year is to be considered ownerless and therefore free.16

Fallow land by Jukka Heinovirta; Source: Unsplash

There's sound ecological reasoning for this practice: Giving the land time to rest prevents nutrient depletion in the soil, promoting healthier crop growth overall. But Shemita also has a spiritual dimension: It invites people to cultivate deeper relationships with the Earth — to recognize that it, too, needs rest. To quote Rabbi Noam Yehuda Sendor, "Shemita helps us realize that the Earth is not merely some resource to be used and abused. If we want to live on the land, it is our responsibility to let it rest. Shemita can also help us reflect on the sanctity in our food and help us connect with the source of all things."17

The origins of the sabbatical, like the origins of May Day, underscore the fact that rest is as essential to a well-lived life as work is. Whether we approach it through the lens of the environment, religion, or self-care, rest is absolutely necessary for balance in our lives and our world. One might even call it an ethical imperative.

Finding Your Rest

The question, however, is how to find that balance in our own lives? That can be especially tricky if our jobs don't grant us paid leave or regular work hours. But we can still do things to create our own rituals of rest and champion the power of relaxation for all.

Like any other ritual, rest is a matter of intention — creating deliberate space for leisure, as people used to do with the folk customs of May Day. That could be as simple as resolving to use all your vacation time, if you have it — and choosing not to work when you're technically off.

“Like any other ritual, rest is a matter of intention — creating deliberate space for leisure.”

True leisure, by Lasse Bergqvist; Source: Unsplash

Rest takes different forms for different people. Some of us find it revitalizing to be around our friends and loved ones. Others prefer quiet time to reflect. Some of us would like to dive into a hobby, while others prefer an extra long nap. Using work methods and actually blocking off time in your schedule for whatever rest means to you is one helpful way to make that time as sacred as you can.18

If you're not entirely sure where to start, you might follow the example of filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, who advocated in a 2019 Boston Globe article for regular "tech sabbaths" — that is, entirely unplugging from screens for one day a week. A tech sabbath, Shlain writes, "restores balance to ourselves, our families, our workplaces, and ultimately, society."19 It can be an effective means of clearly demarcating between work and life — and escaping the internet's ceaseless demands on our attention.

At Keap, we have always believed in the regenerative benefit of meaningful time away from work. This year we’re continuing our company norm of taking a two-week full company sabbatical in June. This allows us all time for rest and recuperation necessary to continue to tackle our longer-term ambitions when we return.

Whatever your own personal sabbath or rituals of rest might be, give yourself the gift of that time whenever you can, and particularly when you feel you need it. When we choose rest, we choose a better world — for ourselves, those people around us and the planet.

— The Keap Team

P.S. If the seasons and this story inspired you to take more outdoor wanders this month, check out our May drinks recipe, Apium. In this savory, smoky Cobbler, pretty pale-green colors, and an abundant garnish combine for maximum visual effect. Perfect for a sunny spring evening.

The Seasonal Series

We select a Seasonal Scent of the month to send to our candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to cover seasonal themes through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition zine, art print and matchbox in their monthly package.
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