May Day and mayday!
It may be that the Romans were the first to celebrate May Day. They had a big party on the festival of Flora, their goddess of flowers. It’s a credible thing to celebrate in May since we all know what April showers bring forth. Other cultures celebrated various festivals around the same time.
In Europe, May Day began as an ancient Gaelic festival named Bealtaine celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Similar festivals were held in the Celtic areas of Europe such as Wales, Brittany and Cornwall.
Perhaps it is because anyone who knew how to read a sundial could determine that May Day was approximately halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.
Many pagan rituals, of which this was one, were frowned upon by early Christians. In some countries zealous members of the Christian church banned the religious side of the celebration of May Day. What happened, because even the church can’t suppress the movement of the sun, moon and stars, was that the holiday evolved into a celebration of the arrival of Spring.
What’s not to celebrate? Just as long as it wasn’t a celebration of a competing religion, Christian churches were prepared to allow their parishioners to get a little bit giddy over the improvement in the weather. They did this by erecting a maypole and dancing around it winding it up with colourful ribbons. There was singing and dancing. An occasional drink might be taken. In some places a Queen of the May was chosen and adorned with a crown of flowers.
On May 1 1561, Charles IX of France was given a gift of a lily of the valley. It was said to be a lucky charm and the king responded by making a gift of a lily of the valley to all the ladies at court on subsequent May Days. It caught on and became the thing to do, helped by two things. One, the lady who received the lily was expected to respond by bestowing a kiss upon the giver. Two, the government decided to forego taxes on sales of lily of the valley at this time of year creating a boom. Using sex as a marketing tool is apparently not all that recent a development.
For us, up here in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere May Day is an important milestone passed on the long, and by no means straight road out of a winter that never seems to want to end. A road that despite its many switchbacks and unpredictable surfaces eventually leads into the easy open arms of our short, but eagerly awaited summer. While there are not that many in these parts dancing around the May Pole on the first of the month, there is an almost universal welling up of joy at the coming of the sun’s warmth.
It was almost inevitable that a festival of joy should ultimately serve as a soapbox for promoting a cause. May Day became the International Day of the Work- er. That date was chosen to commemorate the Haymarket riot in Chicago 1886. During the threeday general strike, the police opened fire and four strikers were killed. The next day there was a rally in support of the slain workers. It was intended to be peaceful. And so it was for a while, but as the demonstration was winding down, someone threw a bomb among the throngs of police and in the course of the ensuing melee a dozen people lost their lives, seven of them policemen.
A show trial followed in which the accused were tried more for their political beliefs than any guilt in the deaths. Four people accused as anarchists were hanged. It was worldwide news in international labour circles. To this day May 1 remains an occasion to celebrate the gains the labour movement has made.
Pre-empted by the Soviet Union, the Workers’ State, May Day became an opportunity for the communist regime to mount a huge parade of tanks, missiles and fighting men through Red Square in Moscow to show off their military muscle.
There is another May Day though. It has nothing to do with workers’ rights or poles decorated with ribbons. Not at all. But if it ends badly, flowers can be a part of this May Day too. A May Day much in the minds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians this last few weeks: May Day, the distress call. Like so much of our language, it started out as a French term “M’Aidez!”, “Help Me!”, which English speakers heard as May Day. It is now the international cry for help that technicians monitoring radio frequencies dread to hear. Seafarers hope never to have to respond to it or, worse still, send it out. But it was the very call heard in mid-March past from the Cougar Helicopter ferrying workers out to the offshore platforms.
As we are celebrating the arrival of spring with joy and flowers this first day of May, let’s take a moment to remember that other May Day and the 17 who perished in the waters of the Atlantic.