So many versions of May Day world-wide

An ode to spring, a signal of distress, a day for a workers’ parade or political protest, raising and dancing around the Maypole.

An ode to spring, a signal of distress, a day for a workers’ parade or political protest, raising and dancing around the Maypole. May 1 is a day of many faces.

I can vaguely remember a sad little song my Mother often sang to me as a lullaby, wherein a very ill little girl was begging her mother to make sure she was there the next morning for the May Day celebrations, “… for I’m to be Queen of the May, Mother, I’m to be Queen of the May …” Such an unhappy song for a day of usually joyous celebration.

Although not an official holiday in North America, May Day is thought to be celebrated as such in more ways than any other particular day, and in some countries it is a proclaimed holiday. As its position in our calendar assures us, it is the bringing in of Spring. In England’s early days it was a festival in which people “went a-Maying” … off into the woods to collect flowers and greenery and “. . . bringing in the May …”.

Here on our mild coast that activity is certainly a possibility, but news from my part of Ontario this morning informs of snow still deep in the woods and ice still locking the lake. This same week, my daughter writes from Fort Mac that “… it’s still snowing here …”.  Well, maybe the making of May posies needs to be postponed in some locales.

Like many of our holidays and celebrations, May Day may have sprung from pagan holidays, one of them being Beltane – a Celtic festival ushering in the spring. Its rituals were not exactly lighthearted, and included blazing bonfires, the driving of cattle between them, dancing around the fires, and even burning witches in effigy. Today, some neo-pagan groups celebrate Beltane as a festival of spring. More in keeping with the season as we know it, is the fun-filled activity of raising a Maypole and dancing around it, sometimes braiding its ribbons to festoon the pole, and choosing a fair maiden as Queen of the May.

May Day’s other connotation is not one of celebration. It is a signal of distress, used most often by boats or ships and airplanes. The term “mayday” evolved from the French “m’aidez” or ‘venez m’aidez” meaning “come and help me”. To make the command more simple, abrupt, and universal it was shortened to m’aidez or the English term of the same pronunciation, Mayday.

In a genuine distress call, the word is to be repeated three times, along with, if possible, the name or number of the vessel or plane, its location, and nature of the danger. Sometimes when the call cannot be made by the distressed entity, a Mayday relay may be sent by another vessel in sight or sound of the distressed. Like a false fire alarm, a bogus Mayday call is a serious crime to be followed by serious sanctions –imprisonment, fines or restitution to the rescuers.

Nancy Whelan’s column appears every second Thursday. E-mail:

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