Lilacs and May Altars
LILACS AND MAY ALTARS
Springtime has always held a special place in my heart. My birthday is right on the cusp on the Spring Equinox and that timing signals that the days are getting longer, there’ll be more time to play outside, and everything is waking up. Spring crocus, daffodils, tulips, lilies of the valley and wildflowers begin popping up everywhere. Tree buds start swelling, displaying a hint of the green that is soon to dominate. Then, in early May, it is the lilac’s turn to take center stage.
I will forever associate lilacs with school at Divine Providence, where I spent 2nd through 8th grade. There, every classroom had a beautiful cabinet with closed shelves for books and other supplies. Built into the cabinet was an alcove that was just the right size for displaying a May altar.
In the Catholic Church, May is the month of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and at my schools, it was celebrated with great fervor. Special songs to Mary were sung every day (“Oh Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today. Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May”). Divine Infant School, where I attended first grade had a May crowning ceremony each year. I unexpectedly joined the special May crowing processional when my best friend, Linda Bubon, developed a sudden case of chicken pox. I excitedly stepped in as a willing understudy.
The students in every classroom at Divine Providence created a May altar. Aluminum foil usually lined the ceiling, floor and walls of the alcove, and a beautiful statue of Mary was placed in the middle of the altar. Students brought bouquets of flowers and placed them in vases around Mary’s statue and that’s where the lilacs came in to play.
Most every home had a lilac bush, or even a hedge of lilacs, that bloomed profusely in early May. Various hues of purple lilacs dominated the bouquets, with white and fuchsia varieties appearing in fewer numbers. The blossoms were so numerous, that every student, even in big Catholic families with 6 or 8 kids, could bring bouquets to school for the May altar without depleting the bush’s beauty.
The sweet, strong scent of the lilacs permeated the classrooms and halls. Each classroom had small, open out windows that provided the only ventilation on those hot, sticky, Midwest days. The smell of lilacs, mixed in with kids sweaty from running around on the playground, could be completely overpowering. When returning to school after the weekend, most of the tiny, lilac florets would have fallen around Mary’s feet, and new flower reinforcements would soon replenish the supply. Toward the end of the month, the bouquets would change to irises or peonies, carrying their own characteristic, sweet fragrance.
The sense of smell is more linked to memory than any other sense. This can happen subconsciously--catching a person off guard--when a whiff of something stirs a strong memory associated with that scent. When I smell lilacs each year, it brings me right back to those bouquets my Mom let me cut from behind the Kedzie’s garage, to decorating the May altar with girlfriends, and to late Spring days, when the temperatures were rising and summer vacation was just weeks away. Those are sweet memories, and ones I enjoy triggering each year as I approach a lilac bush and breathe deeply.
Just beautiful,Dulcey. Lilacs trigger these memories for me too. Two big lilac bushes stood by the entrance to the "prairie."
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