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The Many Meanings of May Day

May Day means many things to many people, from pagans to factory workers to troubled boaters. David Clark is here to explain it all.

May Day for Pagans

Wherever the winters are cold, wet, or overcast, the prime weeks of spring inspire elation and revelry. Finally, we can stop being irritable, morose winter brutes and commence our exuberant sun worship.

So around the end of April and beginning of May, the Romans honored their flower and fertility goddess Flora with dances, processions, games, and sundry merriment. Lots of this merriment involved prostitutes, rarely clothed. Of course everyone thinks the "Floralia" festival had roots in older earth and goddess worshipping cultures; defenders of Roman Virtue have blamed the Floralia's rampant licentiousness -- including nude mimes! -- on those randy and uncivil primitives. Arguably, the Romans had lewd habits all their own, even before Caligula -- but we won't get into that.

On May 1st there were also sacrifices to the obscure Italian earth goddess Maia by the priests of Vulcan (the fire and volcano god, thought to be Maia's beau). We don't know much else about what the Romans thought of her, except that she's the one who gave the month its name.

The Celtic druids had their own May Day holiday, Beltane -- which translates to bright or lucky fire. They lit bonfires all over the hills to honor the sun, and they walked their cattle between the flames to provide some magical protection from diseases and witchcraft, before releasing the beasts to pasture for the season. People sometimes walked between the fires, as well, if they were feeling particularly wary of the coming year or were suffering a spate of bad luck. Some say that the Maypole tradition -- in which a tall pole serves as center for fertility-oriented rites -- began with the Celts. Some people will blame everything fertile or phallic on the pagans.

May Day for Christians

During medieval times, May Day festivities took off in England. At the crack of dawn everyone would "go a-maying," gathering flowers and greenery and choosing a Maypole. Women would also wash their faces in fresh spring dew to improve their complexions -- and men would try to seduce them. (Many poems about May Day festivities have made it into the scholarly canon of English Lit., and thus college classrooms -- and almost all of them are not-so-subtle efforts to seduce a virgin.) Children hung flower baskets from door-handles, whether to fend off evil spirits or spread joy. And there were games, contests, dressed-up cows, sports, jesters, and wild costumes. A Queen of May was appointed to preside over festivities, and this practice has been connected with ancient worship of Maia. But by the middle ages, Maia was well-blended with Maid Marian. Robin Hood and his forest-dwelling bandits would also show up to bolster the merriment.

maypole.jpgThe Maypole was at the center of all this -- and it was against that prominent shaft that many Puritans directed their righteous ire. They hated May Day with fist-shaking passion. They loathed the fleshy indulgence of it: what could irk a Puritan more than this celebration of "the birds and the bees"? (This is the basis of the 1973 cult hit The Wicker Man.) In 1644, the English Puritans in power were able to outlaw May Day for a little while. But that didn't hold.

Pilgrims to America brought this tension with them, and in the early colonies one May Day caused quite the scandal. In 1627 Thomas Morton -- who had established the non-puritanical colony of Merrymount to rival Plymouth -- set up a Maypole and celebrated the May Day cheerfully (and beer-fully) around it. The gossip is that Merrymounters even danced with squaws! Of course the neighboring Puritans would have none of it. So the raging John Endicott (future governor of Massachusetts) strode into Merrymount and chopped down the Maypole. He re-dubbed Morton's colony Mount Dagon, after a god of the sinful Philistines who died in Noah's flood, and soon managed to have Morton himself expelled back to England on charges of selling weapons and booze to the natives.

May Day for Workers and Communists

may-day.jpgA decidedly non-pagan, asexual May Day celebration is that of International Workers' Day, a holiday created by socialists and labor organizers in commemoration of the Haymarket Riot of May 4th, 1886 (also called the Haymarket Massacre or, more cautiously, the Haymarket Affair).

In post-Civil War America, the Industrial Revolution was in full blaze and workers were suffering. Machines were replacing skilled laborers, hours were increasing, conditions were worsening, and the wages were inadequate. The revolutionary ideas of socialism and Marxism caught on with many of these disenfranchised and antagonized laborers, and the movement for an eight-hour day had gained powerful momentum. With all of this brewing, disputes and riots ignited again and again. Then at a large protest in Chicago's Haymarket Square someone threw a dynamite bomb at the cops, which triggered a battle that left at least twelve dead and many more wounded. The riot was followed by a hugely publicized trial and the eventual hanging of four anarchists, the "Haymarket Martyrs."

This violent clash in Chicago became a powerful symbol for radical labor groups. A few years later, the Second International officially initiated the tradition of May Day labor demonstrations that continue still.

May Day for Patriots

Of course, labor demonstrations often feature strong showings from socialists, communists, and anarchists. So during the post-WWII Red Scare, the United States counteracted Soviet-influenced May Day rallies by designating May 1st as Loyalty Day, a day during which all Americans, even disgruntled workers, are to remember their vows to the Nation -- which should trump any allegiance to those insidious international rebel alliances. Loyalty Day probably didn't have the intended effect of inspiring Soviet spies to turn Prodigal Son, but plenty of Americans tend to prefer a good parading, flag-waving, and hot-dog-eating holiday to some serious-minded May Day workers' rights protest.

May Day for Life-Threatening Emergencies

Why is "mayday!" an international distress call? It doesn't derive from Puritans warning each other of druidic daylight orgies, and it's not Cold War Army code for a communist uprising thick with bomb-throwing anarchists -- it's just a simple mispronunciation of the French venez m'aider, meaning "come help me!"

How do you do it? In a life-threatening emergency (please no sprained ankle alarms), just plug into a radio distress channel and say "mayday" three times, then the name of your boat three times, if you're lucky enough to be on a boat, then give the information a rescuer will need to save you. If the danger isn't immediately life-threatening, you can make a simple "pan-pan" call. Or better yet, ask your mother for advice.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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10 Other Mother’s Days from Around the World
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After her mother passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to dedicate a day to her mother, and mothers everywhere. Little did she know, and evidently much to her chagrin, Mother’s Day fast became a commercial phenomenon. Its popularity spread worldwide and many countries, particularly in the Western world, adopted the second Sunday in May as their official Mother’s Day. But not every nation followed suit—perhaps to the chagrin of their local flower companies. In fact, Mother’s Day in many countries has little or nothing to do with Anna Jarvis’s creation, nor does it always occur in May. These are just a few of those other Mother’s Days.

1. UK // MOTHERING SUNDAY, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

The name may sound strikingly similar to its American counterpart, but the origins of Mothering Sunday are quite different. By most historical accounts, it was the Church of England that created Mothering Sunday to honor the mothers of England, and later to commemorate the “Mother Church” in all its spiritual nurturing glory. Hundreds of years ago, Christians were expected to make at least one return to their mother church each year. In other words, Mothering Sunday was the ultimate guilt trip to visit the woman or entity that gave them life. Was that so much to ask? The fourth Sunday of Lent became the designated day to make this journey, and remains the go-to holiday to celebrate Moms to this day.

2. THAILAND // MOTHER'S DAY, AUGUST 12

Her Majesty Sirikit the Queen of Thailand is also considered the mother of all her Thai subjects. In light of her royal maternal status, the Thai government made her birthday, August 12, Thailand’s official Mother’s Day in 1976. It remains a national holiday, celebrated countrywide with fireworks and candle-lighting. In related holidays, Father’s Day in Thailand falls on the current King’s birthday, December 5.

3. BOLIVIA // MOTHER'S DAY, MAY 27

During the struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many of the country's fathers, sons, and husbands were injured and killed on the battlefields. As the history is told to Bolivian students, one group of women from Cochabamba refused to stand idly by; on May 27, they banded together to fight the Spanish Army on Coronilla Hill. Though hundreds died in battle, the legacy of their contributions lives on thanks to a national law passed in the 1920s making the day on which the “Heroinas of Coronilla” took to the streets national Mother’s Day.

4. INDONESIA// MOTHER'S DAY OR WOMEN'S DAY, DECEMBER 22

Made official in 1953 by its president, Indonesia's Mother’s Day falls on the anniversary of the First Indonesian Women’s Congress (1928). The first convening of women in a governmental body is still considered pivotal in launching organized women’s movements throughout Indonesia. The holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of women to Indonesian society.

5. MIDDLE EAST (VARIOUS) // MOTHER'S DAY OR SPRING EQUINOX, MARCH 21

Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin introduced the idea of a Mother’s Day to his home country, and it quickly spread throughout much of the region. Inspired by a story of a thankless widow ignored by an ungrateful son, Amin and his brother Ali successfully proposed a day in Egypt to honor all mothers. They decided the first day of spring, March 21, was most appropriate to celebrate the ultimate givers of life. It was first celebrated in Egypt in 1956, and is still observed throughout the region from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Iraq.

6. NEPAL // MOTHER PILGRIMAGE FORTNIGHT OR MATA TIRTHA SNAN, LAST DAY OF THE MAISHAKH MONTH (USUALLY BETWEEN LATE APRIL AND EARLY MAY)

Stemming from an ancient Hindu tradition, this festival of honoring mothers is still commonly celebrated in Nepal. The holiday honors both the living and the dead equally. Traditionally, those honoring mothers who have passed away make a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds near Kathmandu. A large carnival is also held in the Mata Tirtha village. Children show their mothers appreciation with sweets and gifts.

7. ISRAEL // FAMILY DAY OR THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHER'S DAY, 30TH DAY OF SHEVAT (USUALLY FEBRUARY)

Henrietta Szold never had any children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from touching the lives of many young ones. Szold played an active role in the Youth Aliya organization, through which she helped protect many Jewish children from the horrors of the Holocaust. This earned her a reputation as the “mother” of all children. In the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl named Nechama Biedermann wrote to the children’s publication Haaretz Shelanu proposing they make the date of Szold’s death Israel’s national Mother’s Day. The newspaper readily agreed, as did the rest of the country. Despite the shift to a more gender-balanced Family Day, the holiday’s popularity has waned over the years.

8. ETHIOPIA // MOTHER'S DAY OR ANTROSHT, WHEN THE RAINY SEASON ENDS (OCTOBER/NOVEMBER)

Rather than tying themselves down to a specific date, Ethiopians wait out the wet season then trek home for a large, three-day family celebration. This feast is known as “Antrosht.” Unlike some western Mother’s Days, the mother plays a key role in preparing the traditional meals for the festival.

9. FRANCE // MOTHER'S DAY OR FÊTE DES MÈRES, LAST SUNDAY IN MAY

Celebrating a few Sundays later than the rest of the world feels so, well, French. However, according to one blogger, they may have beat all of us to the punch—sort of. France has a storied history of attempts to create a national Mother’s Day. Napoleon tried to mandate a national maternal holiday at the turn of the 19th century. But things ended up not working out so well for him and his holiday. More than a century later, Lyon held its own Mother’s Day celebration to honor women who lost sons to the First World War. It was not until May 24, 1950 that the Fête des Mères became an officially decreed holiday.

(The holiday is mandated to occur on the last Sunday in May. However, if that Sunday is also the Pentecost, then Mother’s Day is pushed to the first Sunday in June.)

10. NICARAGUA // MOTHER'S DAY OR DÍA DE MADRE, MAY 30

In the 1940s, President General Anastasio Somoza Garcia declared Mother’s Day in honor of the birthday of his mother-in-law. Despite its brown-nosing origins, it remains a big deal in Nicaragua.

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What's the Story Behind Cinco de Mayo?
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Cinco de Mayo, or May 5, is recognized around the country as a time to celebrate Mexico’s cultural heritage. Like a lot of days earmarked to commemorate a specific idea or event, its origins can be a little murky. Who started it, and why?

The holiday was originally set aside to commemorate Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The two had gotten into a dispute after newly-elected Mexico president Benito Juárez tried to help ease the country’s financial woes by defaulting on European loans. Unmoved by their plight, France attempted to seize control of their land. The Napoleon III-led country sent 6000 troops to Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town en route to Mexico City, and anticipated an easy victory.

After an entire day of battle that saw 2000 Mexican soldiers take 500 enemy lives against only 100 casualties, France retreated. That May 5, Mexico had proven itself to be a formidable and durable opponent. (The victory would be short-lived, as the French would eventually conquer Mexico City. In 1866, Mexican and U.S. forces were able to drive them out.)

To celebrate, Juárez declared May 5, or Cinco de Mayo, to be a national holiday. Puebla began acknowledging the date, with recognition spreading throughout Mexico and in the Latino population of California, which celebrated victory over the same kind of oppressive regime facing minorities in Civil War-era America. In fact, University of California at Los Angeles professor David Hayes-Bautista cites his research into newspapers of the era as evidence that Cinco de Mayo really took off in the U.S. due to the parallels between the Confederacy and the monarchy Napoleon III had planned to install.

Cinco de Mayo gained greater visibility in the U.S. in the middle part of the 20th century thanks to the Good Neighbor Policy, a political movement promoted by Franklin Roosevelt beginning in 1933, which encouraged friendly relations between countries.  

There’s a difference between a day of remembrance and a corporate clothesline, however. Cinco de Mayo was co-opted for the latter beginning in the 1970s, when beer and liquor companies decided to promote consumption of their products while enjoying the party atmosphere of the date—hence the flowing margaritas. And while it may surprise some Americans, Cinco de Mayo isn’t quite as big a deal in Mexico as it can be in the States. While Mexican citizens recognize it, it’s not a federal holiday: Celebrants can still get to post offices and banks. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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