May Day – May Day, It’s the First of May


Maypole at a girl's school in Brentwood in southern California, from Wikipedia, photo by Jengod
Maypole at a girl’s school in Brentwood in southern California, from Wikipedia, photo by Jengod

         “Not far from Merry Mount was a settlement of Puritans, most dismal wretches, who said their prayers before daylight, and then wrought in the forest or the cornfield till evening made it prayer time again.”  by Nathaniel Hawthorne from The Maypole of Merry Mount

May Day Now and Then

Today an editorial by Peter Dreir appeared on Huffington Post, concerning the international significance of May Day. The piece was written mainly from the viewpoint of the holiday as a time of political activity, particularly those pertaining to workers’ rights and immigration reform. No mention was given as to how the date traces its significance back to the old Celtic calandar used in many parts of Europe. Originally, the First of May was the time of year villagers celebrated the arrival of spring with dancing, feasting, drinking and much merriment……but unfortunately Mr. Dreir has forgotten this and sees the day, as one aligned with political struggles.

My Early May Day Experience

In my youth we celebrated May Day at school with the erection of a maypole, where us kids got to dance around the center post, while holding the end of a long tassel. The number of boys and girls were equal, as each group danced in opposite directions, weaving their colorful strands as they went. The dance lasted only a few minutes, until the large pieces of ribbon were completely wrapped around the pole.

The place was a public elementary school in the Maryland countryside and this dance was a big deal for us third graders who got to do the dance, for all six grades were let out of class to watch the proceedings. Also, a May King and Queen were chosen from the sixth class. All in all, a very good time was had by all.

As I got older, I moved away and got to live in other parts of the country. During my travels I learned of other people, who had participated in similar May Day festivities, but overall this particular celebration was not a widespread practice.

The Maypole of Merry Mount

In 1842 Nathaniel Hawthorne published a collection of short stories, called Twice Told Tales. One of those tales was titled The Maypole of Merry Mount, a spirited account of conflict between Puritans and a group of slightly less religious souls, who lived in a nearby village. The central point of contention here was a marriage between a young man and woman. The wedding celebration included much feasting and dancing, but was rudely interrupted by a group of Puritans, who demand that all the participants (except the bride and groom) be whipped.

Before being shipwrecked the SS Minnow sent out a Mayday distress signal, but know one responded
Before being shipwrecked the SS Minnow sent out a Mayday distress signal, but know one responded

How Mayday Became A Distress Symbol

In the nautical world, the distress signal, Mayday, is always repeated three times. Like this, Mayday….Mayday…….Mayday. It has nothing to do with the first day of the fifth month. Instead, the word is derived from the French expression, m’aider, which translates to “Help Me!”






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