Tra la! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!
That lovely month when ev’ryone goes
— Alan Jay Lerner, Camelot
Readers of a certain age may remember dancing around the maypole on May 1. At my northwest D.C. elementary school, the maypole was set up on the playground and we each held a colored ribbon that was tied to the top. As we danced in a circle, carrying our ribbon over and under the children ahead of us, we wove a beautiful braid that eventually encased the pole. I don’t remember what music we danced to, but there was a great deal of giggling and giddiness as we went. Ah, the carefree days of youth! Charlottesville’s Dogwood Festival and D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Festival celebrate the same spirit of welcoming spring as well as the summer to come. As we now enjoy the profusion of blooming flowers and heavenly weather in central Virginia, I lament these lost traditions in the U.S. But happily, they are still practiced in European countries such as Germany and England—as they have been for generations.
The month of May took its name from the goddess Maia, a Greek and Roman goddess of fertility. As the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, May 1 is halfway to summer. The earliest known May Day celebration was the Floralia, or festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, held during the Roman Republic era (c. 500-27 BC). The Floralia included theatrical performances, competitive events, and offerings of wheat ears to Flora and/or Ceres. These pagan fertility rituals had their roots in agriculture, with the maypole representing actual trees around which ancient people would dance in hopes of a bountiful harvest. Trees were stripped of their leaves and limbs, and then decorated with garlands of ivy, vines, and flowers. Another May festival, called Maiouma, celebrated Dionysus and Aphrodite at least as early as the 2nd century AD, with all-night revels that earned a reputation for debauchery and licentiousness.
These festivals were later carried to Germany and Scandinavia, where they became joined with the Christian celebration of Walpurgis Night on April 30 (May Eve) to mark the canonization of St. Walpurga. Walpurgis Night is still celebrated with maypole dancing, bonfires, carol singing, and the crowning of a Queen of the May. In Finland, Walpurgis Night is one of the four biggest holidays of the year, along with Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and Midsummer, with cities and towns hosting big carnival-style festivals. And in France, people give each other sprigs of lily of the valley on May Day, a tradition dating from the reign of Charles IX (1560-1574).
In England as well as Canada, medieval Morris dancing has been traditionally linked with May Day. In a Morris dance, men wearing bells and carrying handkerchiefs and wooden swords execute choreographed figures involving leaping, clapping the swords together, and weaving the swords into a star. The Charlottesville Morris dancers still perform on the downtown mall on special occasions. When I first came to Charlottesville in the 1970s, I joined the (now defunct) Court Square dancers. We danced in Market Street Park on May Day along with the Morris Dancers, wearing flower wreaths in our hair.
In Oxford, it is a centuries-old tradition for night-time revelers to gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College at 6 a.m. on May Day to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals. In Minneapolis, the May Day Parade and Festival is presented annually on the first Sunday in May, drawing around 50,000 people to Powderhorn Park. On May Day itself, local Morris Dance troupes converge on an overlook of the Mississippi River at dawn, and then spend the remainder of the day dancing around the metro area. That would certainly be worth a visit!
In the Gaelic culture of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, May Day has been celebrated since 900 AD as the feast of Beltane (“lucky fire”) and the similar Welsh Calan Mai. The celebration originally focused on “the symbolic use of fire to bless cattle and other livestock as they were moved to summer pastures. This custom continued into the early 19th century, during which time cattle would be made to jump over fires to protect their milk from being stolen by fairies. People would also leap over the fires for luck.” All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire, and people would gather hawthorn and flowers to decorate their houses in celebration of new growth and fertility (wikipedia.org). The Beltane Fire Festival is still celebrated in Edinburgh, and at the University of St. Andrews, students gather on the beach late on 30 April and run into the North Sea at sunrise on May Day. Brrr!
17th-century Puritans frowned upon the use of the maypole in celebrations—it was viewed as a phallic symbol—with its accompanying drinking and carousing. The Puritans managed to quash the maypole celebration in England and the U.S. for roughly two centuries. But by the late 19th century, the custom regained popularity as the British people took an interest in their country’s rural traditions (learnreligions.com).
In a completely unrelated usage, May Day is also known as International Workers’ Day, commemorating the historic struggles by workers and gains made by the labor movement. In 1889, an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions designated May 1 as Workers’ Day to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago, which involved workers striking for an eight-hour workday. Five years later, U.S. President Grover Cleveland, uneasy with the socialist origins of Workers’ Day, signed legislation to make Labor Day—already held in some states on the first Monday of September—the official U.S. holiday in honor of workers.
Last but not least, how did “mayday” become a distress signal in radio communications? In the 1920s, British airport radio officer Frederick Stanley Mockton chose it as an “emergency procedure” word, both because it was easy to understand over the radio and because it was the phonetic equivalent of the French m’aidez (“help me”). Used primarily by aviators and mariners to signal a life-threatening emergency, convention requires the word be repeated three times in a row during the initial emergency declaration (“mayday mayday mayday”).
To see some of these May Day traditions in action and for a major dose of nostalgia, watch the 1937 film Maytime, starring Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy—based on Sigmund Romberg’s 1917 operetta of the same name. May Day has been celebrated around the world for over 2,000 years. Modern celebrations of Earth’s rebirth connect us with our distant past. So as the Germans say, “Tanz in den Mai” (Dance into May)! As Rachel Carson said, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”