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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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7 Surprising Uses for Tequila
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Happy National Margarita Day! While you could celebrate by having a few drinks, you could also skip the hangover by unlocking one of tequila's amazing abilities outside of the glass. Many spirits are useful for activities beyond sipping (vodka, for example, is a great stain and odor remover), but tequila holds some particularly magical powers. Here are just a few of them.

1. SYNTHETIC BAUBLE

In 2008, a team of scientists in Mexico discovered that when the heated vapor from an 80-proof tequila blanco was combined with a silicon or stainless steel substrate, it resulted in the formation of diamond films. These films can be used in commercial applications, such as electrical insulators, or to create one big fake diamond. Who knew that spending $50 on a bottle of Don Julio was such a wise investment?

2. ALTERNATIVE ENERGY SOURCE

Keeping with the science theme: In 2011, researchers at England’s University of Oxford suggested that we may one day be gassing up our cars with tequila. They identified agave, the plant from which tequila is produced, as a potential biofuel source—and a particularly attractive one, as the plant itself is not consumed by humans and can thrive in desert climates.

3. WEIGHT LOSS SUPPLEMENT

Scientists have long promoted the potential benefits of the agave plant for its ability to help dissolve fats and lower cholesterol. The bad news? These properties get a bit diluted when the plant is distilled into alcohol. Even more so when it's whipped into a sugary margarita.

4. SLEEP AID

Take three or more shots of tequila and you’re bound to pass out. A single shot can have the same effect—just not in that drunken stupor kind of way. Relaxation is one of the positive side effects of tequila drinking; a small amount (1 to 1.5 ounces) before bedtime can reportedly help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.

5. COLON CLEANSER

Too much of a good thing may not bring a welcome turn of events for your liver … but your colon will thank you! Researchers at Mexico’s University of Guadalajara have identified the blue agave as a potentially helpful source for delivering drugs to the colon in order to treat colitis, IBS, Crohn’s disease and even cancer.

6. DIABETES PREVENTATIVE

If Ernest Hemingway had known about the healing properties of tequila, his signature drink might have been a margarita instead of a daiquiri. In 2010, experiments conducted at Mexico’s Polytechnic Institute of Guanajuato revealed that the agave plant (which is high in fructans, a fructose polymer) could stimulate the GLP-1 hormone, aiding in increased insulin production.

7. COLD REMEDY

“Plenty of liquids” is a well-known remedy for getting oneself out from under the weather. But expanding that definition to include a kicked-up shot of tequila makes a day laid out on the couch sound much more appealing. In the 1930s, doctors in Mexico recommended the following concoction to fight off a cold.

.5 ounce of tequila blanco
.5 ounce of agave nectar (to eliminate bacteria and soothe sore throats)
.5 ounce of fresh lime juice (for Vitamin C)

Though some people (including tequila companies) swear by its healing powers, others say it's hogwash.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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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