Saturday, May 5, 2012

May Day, May Day, May Day

Yes, that is the international distress call, but I’m not shouting it out the requisite three times for that purpose.  At least not today.  Perhaps tomorrow, after Greece’s parliamentary elections.

I’m referring to other connotations of the phrase.  Do you remember childhood days dancing around the maypole and crowing the Queen of the May?  You probably do if you’re British, probably not if you were raised in the U.S. but I think the latter is more for reasons I’ll get into a bit later. 

Did you know that all this May 1st celebrating goes back to ancient pagan days and that virtually all northern hemisphere cultures had some sort of “spring rite” festivities?
Why of course you did.

Walpurgis Night
The earliest festivals were linked to the Roman goddess of flowers (Flora), Germanic celebrations of what is now called Walpurgis Night (named after the patron saint of those suffering from rabies, it’s also known as “the witches sabbath” coming precisely 6 months after All Hallows Eve—interesting combination), and the Celtic Beltane (a springtime festival of optimism).

Here on Mykonos locals take great pride in fashioning circular wreaths out of grape vines tied off with bunches of wildflowers (aloe, statice, geraniums, daises, lavender, and the like), angelica, olive, rosemary, wheat, bay leaf, and for some, whole cloves of garlic.  They’re quite beautiful and for those wreaths proudly hung on front doors which survive another Mykonian tradition—wreath heisting by neighborhood children—they’re burned on the day of the Summer Solstice (June 22nd) as the adventuresome jump over the flames three times making a wish as they do...probably not to burn off their you-know-whats in the process. 

May 1st ends the hunker down winter mindset here and harbingers the coming joyful days of summer.  But I digress…as I did the night of May 1 late into 2, joining both pagans and non in the welcoming rite of spring to Mykonos.

Most novice bouzouki player on Mykonos
Did you also know that May Day is International Worker’s Day?  If you live virtually anywhere outside of the U.S. you probably do.  Inside, likely not.  The U.S. has stuck to the first Monday in September as its Labor Day and Americans generally associate May 1st with a communist or socialist workers holiday, complete with grandiose military parades in such places as Russia, North Korea, and Cuba. 
London May Day (Dan Kitwood)
Athens May Day (Kostas Tsirinis)
New York May Day (Mary Attaffer)

I’d venture to say most Americans have no idea that International Worker’s Day is officially celebrated in most countries around the world not to glorify any foreign ideal or event, but to mark what occurred in Chicago, Illinois on May 4, 1888.

Permit me to lift the following description of what happened from Wikipedia’s entry, “The Haymarket Affair.”

Harper's Weekly, May 15, 1886 (Thure de Thulstrup)
“The Haymarket affair (also known as the Haymarket massacre or Haymarket riot) refers to the aftermath of a bombing that took place at a labor demonstration on Tuesday May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago. It began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they acted to disperse the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians, and the wounding of scores of others.

“In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were convicted of conspiracy, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb. Seven were sentenced to death and one to a term of 15 years in prison. The death sentences of two of the defendants were commuted by Illinois governor Richard J. Oglesby to terms of life in prison, and another committed suicide in jail rather than face the gallows. The other four were hanged on November 11, 1887. In 1893, Illinois’ new governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the remaining defendants and criticized the trial.

“The Haymarket affair is generally considered significant as the origin of international May Day observances for workers.  The site of the incident was designated a Chicago Landmark on March 25, 1992, and a public sculpture was dedicated at the site in 2004. The Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument in nearby Forest Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark on February 18, 1997.”

No country likes to commemorate its failings.  The important thing is to own up to them.

Now, about those elections tomorrow…



  1. From what coverage there is, there were marches and rallies all over Europe on May Day, with major labor union participation and that of other working people. Many of them protested the unemployment and austerity cuts going on in their countries.

    Over here, in New York, tens of thousands, including immigrants, other working people, Occupy Wall Street and so many others had a long rally, with feeder marches and so on.

    Saw it on the news and saw video clips of what looked like a tremendous activity, with harmony and peace prevailing among all sectors.

  2. And hopefully, Kathy, this long likely summer of worldwide demonstrations will remain harmonious and peaceful. Amen.

  3. "Beltane ('bright fire') [is] a cross-quarter day of the Celtic year, celebrating the beginning of summer", from All About Thyme (4/30/12) by Susan Wittig Albert, who can prescribe herbal cures for everything, including murder.

    CQD (1904: Marconi) & SOS (1905: Germany; then international) were used by The Titanic.

    Seems "Mayday" was voice-distress, air-disaster oriented when created in 1923, but, OMG, how fitting for Berlin Airlift, Hungarian Freedom Fighters, Prague Spring. etc--none of which is "history" to me, but then I'm not 40.

  4. Thanks for the amplification, Liz. We 40 plusers can still use reminders.:)

  5. What a mix of celebrations-activities-for May Day. I love the flowers, but that is my soft spot. When I was very young, the elementary schools in NYC celebrated May Day with dancing around a maypole in Central Park, one for each school. We found it a bother, you know kids, but it must have been very pretty. OT, some of my posts are getting lost. Is that par for the course?

  6. In Pittsburgh, Lil, we danced around a blast furnace. ONLY KIDDING FOLKS. But, honestly, I don't remember ever celebrating around a may pole as a child. Or as an adult for that matter.

    As for your technical problem, I'll refer it to our maintenance department. Let's hope you-know-who is watching.

  7. Lil, In Pittsburgh we celebrated by dancing around a blast furnace. ONLY KIDDING FOLKS! Frankly, I can't remember celebrating around a maypole as a child, nor as an adult.

    As for your technical problem, my first effort at posting this reply landed an error message requiring me rewrite the whole thing. Hopefully one of our technical maestros "on staff" can figure out the glitch.

    BTW, I'm copying this post before I hit publish. Just in case.

  8. Pity it took so long for it to be acknowledged that there was something wrong with the Haymarket trial. It is another good argument for the abolition of the death penalty.

    As to the flowers in May, I will likely not see flowers in my yard until June. Days in the 50's with rain. At least the drought is being alleviated somewhat.

    Living in New England, it is always sad to be reminded that spring arrives late and leaves early. It must be lovely on Mykonos.

  9. Well, this brought back memories. Mainly of my sister and I and all our little friends in Lone Elm, Kansas making May baskets. Flowers grew abundantly in Eastern Kansas--Wild roses, peonies, and daisies. We put flowers in the baskets and would hang them on the doorknobs of the elderly(anyone over thirty) and knock loudly and run and hide (not too well) and wait for their expressions of susprise and delight.

  10. At the risk of raising the ire of New Englanders everywhere, Beth, it's breathtakingly beautiful here now, with literally every wildflower in peak bloom. It's also in the 80's, sunny and no breeze. But there is a downside: it's darn hard to stay in and write.

    Hmm, Charlotte, interesting cultural distinction you draw: In Mykonos children heist wreaths off doors, while in Kansas they hang them there as surprises. Could an explanation for the difference lie in something as simple as the fact that in Lone Elm, Kansas they still shoot wreath rustlers?

  11. Actually, traditionally, up until recently, we preferred to hang people. In the 1880s a good hanging was social event. Children attended and parents packed a picnic lunch.

  12. Thank you for this very interesting blog. English is a fascinating web of words - May Day spoken thrice has such a different connotation from just May Day.. Thelma Straw in Manhattan at

  13. Aha, Charlotte, now I understand why Dorothy was so anxious to get back home to Auntie Em. Didn't want to miss any of those picnics.

    And to get there, Thelma, she had to click those ruby slippers three times!

  14. We have a public holiday in the UK tomorrow for May Day (always held the first Monday of May). It drives the conservatives mad and they have murmured about abolishing it, but the workers like their holiday...