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April 30, 2023

May is a festive month, a time in spring marked with flowers and music. The month includes the joyous observance of May Day and Cinco de Mayo. The Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday of the month at Churchill Downs in Louisville. It is the first in horseracing’s Triple Crown. Mother’s Day and Memorial Day come later. Both can be happy occasions or times of somber remembrance.

May Day has a long and varied history. The origin of May Day observance is based on ancient astronomy. It is the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In ancient times, the event was one of the Celtic cross-quarter days, which marked the midway points between the solstices and equinoxes of the year.

As with many early holidays, May Day was rooted in agriculture. Springtime festivities filled with song and dance celebrated the sown fields starting to sprout. Cattle were driven to pasture, and doors of houses and barns for livestock were decorated with yellow flowers. In the Middle Ages, the Gaelic people celebrated the festival of Beltane, which means the Day of Fire. People created large bonfires and danced through the night to celebrate.

Beltane is one of the eight pagan Sabbats. The celebration of Beltane is focused on fertility. Beltane is a fire festival, and common elements of the Beltane celebrations include bonfires, flowers, wreaths, and various fertility rituals.

May Day has a long history and tradition in England, some of which eventually came to America. People would bring in the May by gathering wildflowers and green branches, weaving floral hoops and hair garlands, and crowning a May king and queen. Children would dance around the maypole, holding onto colorful ribbons. May Day occurs annually and still takes place on the first of May.

Wrapping a maypole with colorful ribbons is a joyous tradition that still exists in some schools and communities. Initially, the maypole was a living tree chosen from the woods with much merrymaking. Ancient Celts danced around the tree, praying for the fertility of their crops and all living things. For younger people, there was the possibility of courtship. If a young woman and man paired by sundown, their romance continued so that the couple could get to know each other and, possibly, marry six weeks later on June’s Midsummer’s Day. This is how the June wedding became a tradition.

In England in the Middle Ages, all villages had maypoles. Towns would compete to see who had the tallest or best maypole. Some villages along the coast erected a ship’s mast as a maypole. People would crown a May Queen who presided over the day’s festivities. Over time, this Old English festival incorporated dance performances, plays, and literature.

The strict Puritans of New England considered the celebrations of May Day to be licentious and pagan, so they forbade its observance. The springtime holiday never became an important part of American culture as it was in many European countries.

Interestingly, from the late 19th century through the 1950s, the Maypole dance and festivities became a rite of spring at some American colleges and universities. Seen as a wholesome tradition, this celebration often included class plays, a cappella concerts, cultural dancing, and music concerts.

Soon, interest waned. The May Queen and her court became a popularity contest or even an opportunity for pranks. When Clare and I were seniors at Furman University, one of her friends was elected May Queen. The celebration was held in a lovely rose garden near the Student Center. Some wag from the chemistry department sprinkled a substance throughout the rose garden, making an otherwise beautiful venue smell like dirty feet. The celebration was short-lived, with meager attendance.  

May Day is celebrated in various ways by people around the world. The following are a few ideas.

The giving of flowers on May Day is a time-honored tradition. In times past, a young man or woman would leave a paper basket containing spring flowers and candy on the doorstep of the object of their affection. This was usually done anonymously.

The tradition was popular with children or sweethearts through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The custom was to knock on the door, yell “May basket,” and run. If the recipient caught the giver, they were entitled to a kiss.

Louisa May Alcott wrote about May Basket Day in the late 1800s. In the 1920s, some schoolchildren hung a May basket on the White House door for First Lady Grace Coolidge. The President’s wife greeted the children and received their kisses. Although it’s not well known today, the May Day basket is still a cherished tradition for some Americans.

Consider celebrating May Day this year. With your children or grandchildren, fill a basket with small gifts such as flower seed packets, baked cookies, candies, and other treats. Give the basket to a loved one.

Among the many superstitions associated with May Day was the belief that washing the face with dew on the first morning of May would beautify the skin and bring good luck. Give it a try! Sprinkle your face with morning dew and see what happens.

 On May Day, people in Britain welcome spring by Bringing in the May. They gather cuttings of fresh flowers for their homes.

The first of May in Hawaii is called Lei Day. Hawaiian people make leis for themselves and others. Leis are garlands made with native Hawaiian flowers and leaves. Leis are given as a symbol of greeting, farewell, affection, celebration, or honor, all in the spirit of aloha.

 My mother would not allow us to go barefoot outside until the first day of May. On that day, Mama would go barefoot with us in our yard on May Day. Whatever your age, walk barefoot in the grass. Encourage the children in your family to do the same!

In parts of Ireland, people would make a May bush. Typically, this was a bush or tree decorated with flowers and ribbons. Consider creating your own May bush or tree.

Beekeepers traditionally move bees on the first of May.

Traditionally, farmers planted turnips on this day. Other folklore has it that they should be planted on the first of May to protect cucumbers from insects. For best results, the grower should be naked when setting the seedlings! I can’t recommend that especially if your neighbor is moving bee hives.

Avid anglers know the best time to catch bream is on the first full moon in May. This year that occurs on the fifth of May.

The term “Mayday!” is not related to the May Day spring festival but instead comes from the French phrase “M’aidez!” which means “Help me!” If you hear “Mayday!” repeated three times, realize it is an urgent distress call.

As colts, calves, and lambs frolic in the pasture, as seedlings emerge from the earth seeking the sun, and as birds call for mates or protect their nest, we humans have much to bring joy to our lives.

After all, May Day is a “day the Lord has made.” We are invited to rejoice and be glad in it.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Sections of this column will be included in the forthcoming book

For the Living of These Days

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. This week, please consider making a May Day Basket and delivering it to a shut-in friend, family member, or nursing home. Thank you for all you have done. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. Thank you.


April 23, 2023

About thirty years ago, I was backpacking with a group of Boy Scouts on the Appalachian Trail along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. At a place named No Business Knob, we stayed awake most of the night listening to a bear tear apart a rotten log. The next morning, we inspected the decaying wood. The animal had found a midnight snack of grubs. We decided that we had no business being on No Business Knob.

One scout said in relief, “At least we don’t have bears in Spartanburg.”

That young man is now a seasoned adult. As he has grown, so has the black bear population in the Upstate.

I learned that bears had moved into our county twenty years ago. I remember one being killed by an eighteen-wheeler on Interstate 26 in the southbound lane between the Landrum exit and the South Carolina Welcome Center. Twenty years ago, bears in the Upstate were rare. I was told by a South Carolina Department of Wildlife Officer that about twenty-six bears were living in the northern part of Spartanburg County.

By 2008, these large animals were becoming more common. Early one morning in late May 2008, a bear was seen roaming along Woodruff Road in Greenville County. The black bear somehow found its way into a dense patch of woods near The Shops at Greenridge, just off Interstate 85. The bear eluded wildlife officers and has not been seen since. One wildlife official commented that these occasional bears reported in the Upstate are usually juvenile male bears searching for new territory.

 “We don’t worry too much about them as long as they keep moving.”

In May 2008, Residents of the Green Acres neighborhood were disturbed by a commotion outside their bedroom window. A 300-pound black bear had stopped by for a visit. The furry interloper made a hasty departure toward the Springfield Subdivision.

Dawn Neely, my sister-in-law, was then the Principal at Hendrix Elementary School, less than a mile from where the bear sighting occurred.

“All of the children were safe,” Dawn said. “But for the very first time in my career, we had a bear lockdown.”

The first, but probably not the last.

The Greenville News reported that May and June are prime times for black bear sightings in the Upstate. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources explains that bears born in January aren’t pushed out until the following spring. Females don’t want them around while breeding. Sometimes, big bears kill younger ones. June is usually the breeding season, and females push adolescent males out. It’s analogous to the teenager going off to college.

For some, it is the college of hard knocks. Highways pose a threat to young bears leaving their dens. In June 2008, a law enforcement officer shot an injured male black bear sometime after midnight on Highway 176 in Spartanburg County.

“The bear had been struck by a vehicle, and veterinary care wouldn’t have saved him,” a state biologist said. “We don’t want animals to suffer.”

Another black bear was struck and killed by a vehicle in Anderson County on Interstate 85 at about 11:30 that same night.

So far this year, The Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) has had 81 reports of bears in populated areas of the Upstate. Bears have been seen recently in Aiken, Gray Court, Columbia, Greenville, and Spartanburg.

In 2022, there were at least three bear sightings in residential areas of Spartanburg County. One was spotted at a home on Parris Bridge Road in Boiling Springs. A small bear was seen walking across the campus of Wofford College. The youngster was long gone when animal control arrived in response. Speculation was that the critter had been up most of the night at a fraternity party. Perhaps the same bear was sighted nearby at Barnet Park. Residents of Duncan Park just off Union Street reported multiple sightings of a large black bear roaming their neighborhood.

This year, a bear has been seen in Converse Heights near Lawson’s Fork Creek. Two weeks ago, the people of downtown Spartanburg were surprised to see a bear visiting Main Street. The bear had climbed a tree on the lawn of First Presbyterian Church.

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the largest land mammals in South Carolina. They have thick fur that can vary in color. The most common color is black with a light brown snout. They have a broad head with rounded ears set back on the head. The rump of a black bear is higher than the front shoulders. They have good eyesight and a keen sense of smell. Black bears are excellent climbers and good swimmers.

Male black bears are larger than females. When food is plentiful, older bears may weigh 400-500 pounds. The largest black bear recorded in South Carolina was 609 pounds. The average life expectancy is 18 years in the wild.

Black bears require large expanses of forest dominated by a diversity of hardwoods, pines, and shrubs intermixed with fruit-bearing vegetation such as blackberries, pokeberries, and blueberries. Wetlands such as swamps and bays also provide suitable habitats. However, black bears are adaptable. Black bears can be happy almost anywhere if they can find adequate food sources and have appropriate den sites.

These fascinating critters can be found throughout North America. Here in South Carolina, there are two populations of black bears, one in the mountains and upper Piedmont and one in the coastal plain. The Upstate group numbers close to 1000 individual bears. The Lowcountry resident bears include about 300 animals. The range for males can be 18 to 160 square miles, while the home range for females is smaller, around 6-19 square miles.

Black bears will travel considerable distances to find adequate food sources. A shortage of natural food and lack of rainfall can cause their home territory to expand. In addition, juvenile bears, especially the males, must scatter to find new home territories. Dispersing young male bears have been sighted in every county in South Carolina. These bears are usually transient and do not stay in the area long. They typically move south from the mountains traveling along stream and rivers.

Black bears will feed on whatever is readily available. These mammals are primarily vegetarian. Eighty percent of their natural diet comprises berries, nuts, and plant matter. But they are also carnivorous. They enjoy insects and meat. Bears use their incredible sense of smell to find alternative food sources such as garbage, bird feeders, outdoor pet food, bee hives, and crops. These close encounters with humans draw them into urban areas, making them a nuisance.

The state’s chief black bear biologist said bears are increasing their numbers and range. Recent estimates indicate there is a population of 900 bears in the Upstate. The SCDNR reports that the black bear populations in the mountains and piedmont are expanding in number and range. All measurable data, such as surveys, human/bear interactions, sightings, road kill, and legal and illegal hunting, are confirmation. Every bear harvested last year was healthy, the heaviest weighing over 500 pounds.

The largest male bear on record in South Carolina weighed 594 pounds.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCSCDNR) reported last year that bear sightings in Spartanburg County are “extremely common,” though most are in rural areas.

About ten years ago, residents of Heathwood Circle on the east side of Spartanburg were surprised when a black bear wandered into their neighborhood. The young male had apparently traveled down Lawson Fork Creek before investigating a garbage can in someone’s backyard. The animal was tranquilized and transported back to the mountains.

Black bears travel into the Upstate from the mountains, making their way along one of our many southeast-flowing streams. They may take shelter in culverts and dense thickets.

While one swipe of a black bear’s powerful front paw can kill a full-grown deer, bears much prefer grubworms to venison.

Attacks on humans are rare. When a bear attacks a person, it is usually because the bear has been provoked or a mother bear believes her cubs are threatened.

Nobody has been attacked or killed by a bear in South Carolina for many years.

The SCDNR offers a unique perspective for all of us. “Bears can learn to live with humans. Can humans learn to live with bears?”

So what can we do to keep bears away from our own backyards? Here are practical suggestions from the SCDNR.

Although black bears are the largest land mammal in South Carolina, they are not generally considered dangerous, and attacks upon humans are relatively uncommon.

Human-bear contact should be avoided if at all possible. The highest priority for avoiding contact is proper storage of anything that could attract bears. Black bears have excellent senses of smell.

  • Birdfeed and feeders: If a bear starts getting into your bird feeders, take them down and put them away for a while; the bear will move on quickly.
  • No exposed garbage: Keep garbage in tightly shut or bear-proof trash cans. Waste left in the open, an available dumpster, or in the back of a truck is an open invitation for a bear.
  • Pet food storage: Store pet food properly if kept outside. Put pet food in airtight storage containers, and don’t leave leftover food out in the open.
  • Clean grills: Keep charcoal and gas grills covered and clean to keep food odors from attracting bears.
  • Beehives: If you’re going to have beehives in bear territory, protect your investment with an electric, bear-proof fence.
  • Absolutely no feeding: A bear that becomes accustomed to having food provided is an accident waiting to happen. Feeding bears promote nuisance behavior.
  • Keep wildlife wild: Never approach a bear for any reason, especially for a photo. Bears can defend themselves. Give bears their space, and they will move on.

               As for that bear up a tree on the lawn of First Presbyterian Church on Thursday morning of Holy Week, the pastoral staff named him Zacchaeus for the tax collector in Jericho who wanted to see Jesus. I suggested that the bear came down from the mountains with some ardent Evangelical preacher to see what Maundy Thursday was all about.

The poor bear was tranquilized and taken from the church. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of folks, especially when I was preaching. I know he was being relocated. I am pretty sure the bear was hungry and looking for food. I hope the driver of his transport stopped by the Beacon Drive-In and let traumatized animal dumpster dive on his way out of town.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please consider sharing your time or resources with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Post Office Box 11710, Columbia, South Carolina 29211-1710,, 803-734-3833. I would encourage you to subscribe to South Carolina Wildlife Magazine. It is a beautiful and interesting publication. 803-734-3859. Thank you.


April 9, 2023

Spring is busting out all over in the Upstate of South Carolina, to paraphrase a line from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. When Easter arrives, our landscape is in bloom. Azaleas display their colors from Delaware White to Hersey Red and many pastel hues in between. In our garden, one of my favorites is Conversation, a pink variety with large pink blossoms.

Riding through the residential areas of our burg, I have noticed modest cottages and palatial estates with lawns showing new green bordered by colorful shrubs. Some spring bulbs, from early-blooming tulips and iris to late-blooming daffodils and hyacinths, combine to create pockets of dancing beauty. Dogwood trees seem to coincide with Easter. In our garden, these lovely trees are in full bloom.

When I was a lad, my Mama usually wore an Easter corsage. It was her Easter gift from my dad. Mama’s pretty flowers were often small cymbidium orchards pinned to her favorite aqua Easter attire.

The flower most identified with Easter is, of course, the Easter lily.

I am among a number of people who are allergic to the pollen of Easter lilies. My sinuses stop up, my eyes itch, and I clear my throat at regular intervals. Decongestants and antihistamines have helped some. The problem would be completely avoidable except for the fact that I am a pastor. The churches I have served have had long traditions of decorating the sanctuary at Easter with beautiful white lilies.

 At the church where I retired, the folks on our flower committee went the extra mile trying to help me. In the same way that a castrated bull becomes a steer or a neutered stallion becomes a gelding, the volunteers removed the stamens from the lily blossoms. Since these pollen producers are considered the male parts of the flower, their removal rendered the lilies hypo-allergenic. Thank you, dear friends, for emasculating the lilies.  

Florists and garden shops are usually well-supplied with Easter lilies. These fragrant white flowers are often given as gifts to hospital patients and nursing home residents. Some cemetery plots will be adorned with lilies. By Easter Sunday morning, the lovely white flowers are traditionally in full display.

According to Roman mythology, the white lily is associated with Juno, the queen of the gods. It is said that when Queen Juno was feeding her baby son Hercules, some of her milk spilled down from the sky. The part that remained above the earth formed the Milky Way. Where drops of milk fell to the ground, pure white lilies bloomed.

In Greek mythology, the lily was dedicated to the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus. 

The lily was a popular flower in ancient Jewish civilization. The flower is mentioned several times in Hebrew scripture. 

In Christian art, the angel Gabriel is pictured giving the Virgin Mary a bouquet of pure white lilies when he announces that she is to be the mother of the Christ child. In other paintings, early saints are depicted bringing bouquets of white lilies to Mary and the infant Jesus.

A legend says that when the women visited the tomb of Jesus following the resurrection, they found the grave empty and a bouquet of white lilies where the body of Jesus had previously been placed. The Easter lily is a symbol of purity and hope. They were said to be growing in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before his arrest.

If you enter a church sanctuary either in person or via live stream on Easter Sunday, you may see lilies at the foot of the cross, around the altar, or near the communion table. These white trumpet-shaped flowers signal the resurrection. 

The Easter lily, Lilium longiforum, is native to the southern islands of Japan. In the 1880s, lilies were cultivated in Bermuda, and bulbs were shipped to the United States. Around the turn of the century, the Japanese took over the growing of Easter lilies. Before 1941, the majority of the Easter lily bulbs were exported to the United States from Japan. Once the United States declared war on Japan and entered World War II, the dependence on Japanese-produced bulbs was eliminated, and commercial bulb cultivation shifted to the United States.

The Easter lily industry is an American success story. It all began with a World War I veteran, Louis Houghton. He brought a suitcase full of hybrid lily bulbs to the south coast of Oregon in 1919. Houghton freely distributed bulbs to his friends and neighbors.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the source of bulbs was abruptly cut off. The value of lily bulbs skyrocketed. Many who were growing lilies as a hobby went into business. By 1945, there were about 1,200 growers producing bulbs up and down the Pacific coast. The Easter lily bulbs were called White Gold.

Raising quality lily bulbs proved to be an exact and demanding science with specific climatic requirements. Over the years, the total number of bulb farms dwindled to just ten. All ten are located in a small, isolated coastal region straddling the Oregon-California border. This region, called the Easter Lily Capital of the World, provides nearly all of the bulbs for the Easter lily market.

 Lily bulbs are harvested in the fall, then packed, and shipped to commercial greenhouses. They are planted in pots and, under controlled conditions, are forced into bloom for the Easter holiday.

Nellie White is the bulb most commonly used for potted Easter lilies. James White developed the hybrid and named it after his wife. Nellie White has large, white trumpet-shaped flowers with a soft yellow throat.

Lilies are among the most dramatic and easy-to-grow flowers in the home garden. Form, color, and fragrance contribute to the charm of garden lilies. Good drainage is the key to success with lilies. Raised garden beds amended with good soil are best in our red clay Piedmont. Tall, stately Asiatic lilies and fragrant Oriental lilies are the two favorite varieties for the Upstate. The corms, also called bulbs, may be planted in the fall or the spring. Asiatic and Oriental lilies grow best in full sunlight.

Nellie White Easter lilies also do quite well in our area. They can be transplanted immediately after the blooms have died. In subsequent years the transplanted lilies cannot be expected to bloom by Easter. They usually bloom a month later, around Mother’s Day. Given the fact that the beautiful white flowers are a symbol for Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mother’s Day seems quite an appropriate time for them to shine.

The flower committee at my former church did precisely that. They figured out how to decorate the sanctuary with Easter lilies without inflicting a pollen-induced allergic reaction on the pastor, the choir, and other susceptible worshipers. The church was adorned as usual for Holy Week.

But, on Easter Sunday, all of the lilies were silk flowers firmly planted in plaster.

According to the Gospel accounts, the reaction of those first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus was not joy but fear. The Gospel of Mark records, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:3 NIV) Trembling, bewilderment, and fear – all are symptomatic of anxiety.

Many of us live in a culture of anxiety. This Easter, we recall the words of Jesus. “Therefore, I say to you, do not worry about your life.” (Matthew 6:25 NKJV) Later, in that same passage from the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Consider the lilies of the field.” (Matthew 6:28). This year, one way to discover inner peace and calm is to consider the Easter lilies. May you be blessed with quiet serenity on this Holy Day. Blessed Easter!

Below is a link to a brief time-lapse video from The National Geographic Society to aid your Easter meditation.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Excerpts from this column will be in the forthcoming book

Cultivating the Spirit on One Acre of Red Clay

To be published later this spring.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please consider sharing flowers with someone you care about. Thank you.