May Day

Greetings, all.

I was pondering “May Day” (because that’s today! OMG!).

Traditionally, May Day has been a day to commemorate spring in northern hemispheres. It falls about halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. With its centuries-old ties to agriculture, May Day celebrations often featured dancing and singing to welcome new life in sown fields. You may have heard of the ancient tradition of Beltane, which marked May 1 as the most important day of the year, marking a point between light and dark.

Photo by Ruby Doan on Unsplash

Celebrations of May Day evolved to include gathering of wildflowers and green branches and perhaps the crowning of a May King and Queen, and a decorated May tree or Maypole. This may have been tied to fertility for plants and mammals (human included), but that was gradually lost and the celebrations morphed into general popular festivals.

Later, celebrations evolved to speak more to the “nging in the May” with the gathering of wildflowers and green branches, the weaving of floral garlands, the crowning of a May king and queen, and the setting up of a decorated May tree, or Maypole, around which people danced. Such rites originally may have been intended to ensure fertility for crops and, by extension, for livestock and humans, but in most cases this significance was gradually lost, so that the practices survived largely as popular festivities (see more at the Farmers’ Almanac).

In the 19th century, May Day morphed again, and became International Workers’ Day, which grew out of the international labor movement for workers’ rights and an 8-hour work day (see more at History.com).

And in these times, let’s talk about another manifestation of “May Day.”

This one is spelled “mayday” and it serves as a well-known distress signal on ships and planes. It’s attributed to a senior radio operator at London’s Croyden Airport. That operator, Frederick Mockford, allegedly got instructions in 1923 from his superiors to think of a word that could be used to signal distress and would be recognized by all pilots and ground crew.

The story goes that because a lot of the air traffic at Croyden was coming from Le Bourget airport in Paris, Mockford suggested “mayday,” a term derived from the French “m’aidez,” (“help me”), and is a shortened form of “venez m’aider” (“come and help me”), though there are grammatical issues with that.

It’s a little weird but also appropriate that though “May Day” and “mayday” aren’t related historically or linguistically, they kind of converge as a result of horrible circumstances.

I don’t really have deeper thoughts than that, but I was thinking about how a particular day and a distress signal share a word and a freaky confluence of world craybuckets.

So on this May Day, I hope that you’re safe and able to get outside a bit for some warmer weather (in the northern hemisphere). But if you’re not, I hope you’re in a position where you can send out a mayday and get some help.

Stay safe, all. Make of each day what you can.

2 comments

  1. Andi, I welcome May because, let’s face it, April was two-months long. I have two memories of May Day, one a bit foggy and the other crystal clear. The foggy memory goes back to my days in elementary school when we would clutch the end of a ribbon and skip around a May pole. Inevitably, the skipping became running and we’d all bump into each other as our ribbon’s length shortened to nothing and we couldn’t all fit around the pole. The clearer memory is of May 1, 2016, in Paris. Warned in advance about a planned demonstration involving right-wing activists, we watched a phalanx of police vehicles speed toward a mass of placard-carrying men who were standing their ground where the Rue de Rivoli meets Place de la Concorde. I felt that we were looking at our future. Anyhoo…Happy May Day.

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