May Day and Hallowe’en (in the sense “evening of All Souls Day, a holy day”) are holidays that were celebrate by ancient European civilization and are still celebrated today. May Day represents birth, rebirth, and/or spring in the northern hemisphere. Hallowe’en represents death and/or the approach of winter. If you examine your calendar, you will find the holidays May Day and All Soul’s Day are exactly a half year apart. Hallowe’en, is the eve of All Soul’s Day.
Naturally, festivities that date back thousands of years have innumerable variations and stories. This article talks briefly about the Roman-English May Day heritage that European settlers and immigrants passed on to the people of the United States.
I have vague memories of celebrating May Day in my extreme youth. There were May Baskets and Maypoles. The May Baskets that our mother guided my siblings and me in making were made of cupcake papers with a pipe cleaner for a handle. Candy, usually jellybeans and/or gumdrops, filled the baskets.
Maypoles and Maypole Dancing (not to be confused with pole dancing) are concepts in my youthful memories that relate to Mayday. Somewhere, I danced around a Maypole, probably only once, probably in the first grade.
Children celebrated May Day with festivities that included Maypole dancing with streamers; by choosing a May Queen; and by placing May Baskets on doorsteps or giving May Baskets to friends and relatives. In the Middle Ages, in England, May Day was a major celebration. Personally, I don’t remember anything more festive in my youth than a half-hour party and making, giving, and receiving May Baskets. These activities are vestiges of the old European traditions.
Maypole dancing consists of the participants holding one end of a gaily-colored streamer attached to the top of the Maypole and moving in and out, as they go around the Maypole. The end-result is a Maypole covered with multi-colored streamers. How does that celebration compare with sitting on a couch and playing electronic games on an I-phone?
In my lifetime, May Day faded away in prominence, probably due to the media’s failure to promote the holiday and partially due to the concerns of adolescence.
The May Day worker's strike of 1886 evolved into an international holiday honoring the working-men and women of the world. In the former Soviet Union, parades became part of the day's celebration. The Soviet Union chose to display military might in these parades. Perhaps, during the Cold War, American media chose to play down the holiday for this reason.
Perhaps the media chose to ignore May Day because it did not generate sufficient advertising revenue. Whatever the reason, the public barely acknowledges the welcoming of spring with traditions from bygone days. I find vestiges of the holiday intermingled with my postcard collection.
In 1995, I resurrected a rusty old flagpole that had lain at the edge of my backyard ever since I purchased the property in 1965. I tied crepe paper streamers to it and supported the pole with cement blocks. I tried, unsuccessfully, to show some of my grandchildren how the dancers twisted in and out, wrapping the Maypole with the colorful streamers. The activity was a dud, probably because I didn’t know enough about Maypole dancing to teach the children how. The only part of the celebration the children enjoyed was eating the food and playing games.
I tried to recruit grandchildren to make May Baskets, but the idea elicited no interest. "Why bother? Let's just eat the candy."
Let's go back to "pole dancing." It is known that the pagan festival Beltrane, a predecessor of May Day, had more robust activities than the simple activities of a hundred years ago.
Maypole dancing played an interesting role in the early history of Quincy (MA). Consider the following from the 1620s.
Morton erected a Maypole on a peak in the settlement. Allegedly, the Maypole was eighty feet tall, a statistic I find hard to believe. The colonists celebrated Mayday by dancing around the Maypole with Indian women and drinking hard liquor.
Occasionally, a couple would disappear into the forest for other activities. The native population tolerated the attention the colonists were paying to their women because Morton was selling firearms to the Indians. When the colonists learned that Morton was selling firearms to the natives, the colonists expelled him from the settlement. Like a “bad penny,” he returned about a year later to continue his escapades.
The Latin word mare and the English word merry sound somewhat alike. Morton utilized this potential play-on-words to name the area Mare-mount. We know the neighborhood today as Merrymount. The site of the Maypole is now a municipal park in the midst of a residential area in the Merrymount part of town. The name of the park is Maypole Park.
Would you believe? In my postcard collection, I couldn't find a May Day postcard. On e-bay, I couldn't find a May Day postcard with a May basket on it. On the internet, I found many images of May baskets, but none on a postcard.
Incidentally, and totally unrelated to the above, the international distress signal, mayday, derives from the French phrase m’aider which is an abbreviation of the French phrase venez m’aider, “come to my aid.” Because it is easy to say and understand, the distress signal is widely adopted amongst the nations of the world. The signal should be given three times in succession in order to distinguish it from general conversation about “May Day.”