Friday, May 1, 2020

May Day In Many Ways

Different types of little flower-filled May Baskets hanging on a grey slatted fence.

May 1st is May Day, a day that has accumulated a lot of traditions and significance over the centuries. The first traditions around this time of year are aligned with the seasons and astrology. But in the last 116 years, the nature-centric theme of the day has been expanded to include specific man-made needs and recognitions. This newest version has nothing in common with the original, but they both remain important to those that commemorate the day and they both have a role in human history.

A woman in a white dress and a flower crown. There is a man in a green costume behind her. It's the May Queen and theGreen Man at the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland
May Day, like so many of our seasonal celebrations, has its roots in astrology and Celtic traditions. May 1st lands midway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice and is known as a Cross Quarter Day, one of four in the Celtic calendar. In Ireland and Scotland, Cross Quarter Days were a time of fire festivals and on April 30th-May 1st they celebrated Beltane. Beltane was hugely important to those ancient people. It represented the greening of the world, ripening fertility, and the end of the dark months and entry into the light. In their world, the year was divided into two parts and May 1st marked a crucial point. Winter and the beginning of the year began on November 1 and midyear and summer (the all-important growing time) began on May 1st. At these turning points, the boundary between the natural and the supernatural came down. Witches, fairies, and other mythical beasts would be on the prowl. Sound familiar? In our time, we celebrate Halloween and All Soul’s Day as a direct descendant of their Samhainn festival, but somehow the spooky components didn’t carry down from Beltane to modern May Day celebrations. Nevertheless, there are people who still celebrate the Beltane Fire Festival around the world; Edinburgh, Scotland hosts one of best-known. They have a beautiful May Queen, a Green Man, White Women, Blue Men, and lots of drumming with naked and semi-naked dancing around a bonfire. It’s a Game of Thrones meets Burning Man kind of thing. Here are a bunch of videos about it and here are some cool pictures.

Girls in multi-colored dresses dance around a Maypole at a festival.
A wicker basket holding long-stemmed pink roses.Apart from neo-paganic celebrations, bonfires are not generally included in modern May Day festivities. Instead, there are May baskets and Maypoles (which, not surprisingly, originated as female and male fertility symbols) and other customs that more closely align with Nature’s bounty than with supernatural entities. May Baskets were traditionally paper cones or everyday baskets, filled with newly-blooming flowers and maybe a small gift, and left at a loved one’s door anonymously. This custom is not as well-known these days, but we did this every year in my family as a gift to our mother. And she always acted surprised. Maypoles are a novelty these days as well, something you see at a Renaissance Fair or a school festival, but they were still relatively common well into the middle of the 20th century. There are lots of ways you can revive old customs and celebrate May Day, this article has some interesting ideas and informational nuggets. For instance, I had no idea that May 1st was the traditional day to move bees (By the way, if you’re interested in beekeeping, check out our bee page).

A graphic showing silhouettes of people holding signs and fists in the are and the words"Equal Rights For All Workers"Aside from being an ancient seasonal celebration, May 1st has become a day to honor the workers of the world – International Worker’s Day. In our country, this day of recognition has been colored as being a Communist or Socialist construct. But, that is deeply unfair to its origins and only reflects the eagerness with which Communist Bloc countries embraced it. International Workers Day grew out of the Labor Movement of the late 1800s, a time of sweatshops and child labor and appalling conditions in general for the average worker. At that time, workers of all ages were expected to work extremely long hours for extremely low pay. In an effort to bring some humanity to the situation, organizers began to demand 8-hour workdays. In Chicago on May 4, 1886 there was to be a peaceful demonstration in Haymarket Square to voice their demand. Out of nowhere, someone threw a stick of dynamite into the crowd and mayhem broke out. At the end of the day, eight people were dead, including seven policemen.
An old print of an an artist's depiction of the Haymarket Incident in 1886.
The Haymarket Incident, 1886
Four of the organizers of the event were ultimately hanged for what happened, even though they were nowhere near where the dynamite was thrown (the perpetrator was never discovered). Known as the Haymarket Incident, this day has affected every American worker since then. Outrage over the miscarriage of justice quickly translated into public support for the men’s cause and the 8-hour workday ultimately became law. In 1899, in commemoration of the sacrifices of the strikers, International Worker’s Day was designated for every May 1st. Unfortunately, some items on their wishlist for workers are still being withheld – including a standardized living wage, eliminating discriminatory practices in hiring and in the workplace and pay equity. The struggle continues and there are protests for workers' rights every year on this date. It seems we have not progressed as much in the last 121 years as we’d like to think we have.

An illustration of a plane with smoke coming out of an engine, It says, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is an emergency".One last May Day story (or should I say Mayday story?): As anyone who has ever seen a cheesy disaster movie knows, you always yell,” Mayday! Mayday!” into the radio when your ship or plane is going down. Not “SOS!” – with good reason, as it turns out. SOS had long been used as a distress message when using a telegraph, primarily because it has a simple and distinctive Morse code pattern (…---…). But, as planes took to the air and telephones came into use, it became apparent that “SOS” is not as clearly understood over a radio or phone. When spoken, it can easily be mistaken for something else, especially when communicating across languages. Although credit for the original idea is murky, the Mayday call, (a variation of the French term “M’aidez”, which means “Help me”) came into use in 1923 and remains the standard for emergency calls.

Black & white cartoon with some kind of animal creatures dancing around a Maypole-Giraffe with that has a daisy face. The words May Day blink on and off in hot pink letters.You can enjoy a May Day celebration any day – a May Basket becomes simply a basket of flowers given with love and support for workers translates into a vote for an increase in teachers’ wages or plain old kindness and gratitude for those working hard around us. You can also dance around in appreciation of Nature (costumes optional). But I would not recommended using the Mayday call just for the heck of it.

Submitted by Pam                                                     

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