May Day

Belgian boy presents May Day flowers to American tourist -- Bois de Boulogne, Paris

If you have a look at your calendar, you’ll notice that May 1st is labeled “May Day”.  Then, if you live in the United States, you’ll probably say, “Yeah?  So?”  It’s a holiday that hasn’t gained traction in most of America, but it’s a big deal in many European countries.  What is peculiar about May Day is that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what the holiday celebrates.

Everyone knows that Mother’s Day is about mothers, and Christmas has something to do with a baby and a jolly fat guy who brings gifts… but what’s the significance of May Day?  That seems to vary from one country to the next, and even within the same country there are differing views.  Basically, it is a celebration of spring and, especially in northern climes, a big “hooray” for the return of sunshine.

This is observed in the United Kingdom with maypoles and Morris dancing, a folk dance which might be described as rhythmic trotting while brandishing sticks and handkerchiefs.  Think Monty Python.  In Scotland, the onset of warmer weather is embraced at dawn of May Day by running into the North Sea, often naked.  Also sounds like Monty Python, doesn’t it?

Incidentally, maypole dancing is not just a British custom; it is a May Day tradition in Germany, Sweden, Austria, Finland, and other countries as well.  Regardless of nationality, though, twirling around a pole decorated with flower garlands and streamers is more charming when performed by children than by middle-aged drunks.

The French associate May Day with the lily of the valley, a symbol of springtime.  A woman is given a floral sprig (see photo); it is traditional for the recipient to give a kiss in return.  The origins of May Day go back to pagan festivals, but more recently May 1st has also become known in some countries as International Workers’ Day.  It nominally commemorates the battle for the 8-hour workday and other achievements of the labor movement, but is frequently marked by political marches and demonstrations, which occasionally turn violent.  May Day, one might conclude, seems to be an opportunity to celebrate spring by getting kisses and cracking skulls.

It should be noted that there is no connection between May Day and “Mayday!”, which is the international distress signal.  That mayday is used by ship captains and aircraft pilots in life-threatening emergencies; it has nothing to do with spring festivals.  The term originated in England in 1923 and is derived from the French phrase (venez) m’aider, meaning “(come) help me”.  For TV trivia buffs, “Mayday” was also the nickname of Sam Malone, the main character on Cheers.

I hope that clears up any May Day questions you might have.  If you want instructions about how to prance around a maypole, you’re asking the wrong person.

2 responses to “May Day

  1. The American tourist did in fact give the little Belgian boy a kiss. Three, actually — the Belgian tradition is a kiss on each cheek and then a return kiss to the first cheek.

  2. Thanks so much for this post! This year, all May 1 meant to me was the start of the statewide ban on public smoking in Michigan. I think a big “Hooray for the return of sunshine” is much better!

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