May Day and may­day!

The Compass - - OPINION -

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.

pick­ers­gill@mac.com

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