May Day memories; some are fuzzy

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When the conversation turned to May Day last week in the Inter Lake newsroom, I was surprised at the range of memories my colleagues have about this particular holiday.

I vaguely recall making May Day baskets in grade school, filling them with goodies and then hanging them on people’s doors as a surprise. May Day wasn’t much of a celebration in my old neck of the woods. A couple of staffers admitted to having little to no knowledge of what May Day is all about, and didn’t have any memories to share.

Matt Baldwin, our managing editor, doled about the most detailed and elaborate recollections of May Day celebrations of his youth. He regaled us with details of a festive May Day pole around which students at his North Carolina school frolicked.

“We’d wear traditional May Day attire,” he shared.

“Wait, what? There are May Day costumes?” some of us inquired.

Matt couldn’t immediately remember what he’d worn for May Day festivities, but his mom had the proof and emailed him photos of him in the third grade looking very dapper in his white pants, a white shirt and red vest. He was even wearing some kind of tie and a boutonniere. Another photo showed the traditional ribbon-clad May Pole at the school he attended, and young girls in ruffled dresses. There was also a crowning of a May Day king and queen, something akin to homecoming royalty, he explained.

A staffer who had attended Catholic school recalled May Day processions at her school and adorning a statue of the Virgin Mary with decorations. According to the Catholic Culture website, the month of May, and May Day in particular, is a time when Catholic traditionally honor Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Yet another colleague remembered a dance around a May Day pole as part of her dance class.

May Day, on May 1, is said to be rooted in pagan festivals dating back several hundreds of years that marked the beginning of summer. According to the Ancient Origins website, May Day celebrations originated in agricultural rituals intended to ensure fertility for crops.

The History website suggests the first maypole dance originated as part of a fertility ritual “where the pole symbolized male fertility and baskets and wreaths symbolized female fertility.”

While May Day celebrations are perhaps lackluster in some parts of the United States (North Carolina being the exception, apparently) many northern countries still make a big deal out of it, including Finland, where May Day is among its top holidays. Finns get pretty rowdy on May Day, with festivals similar to Mardi Gras. And the May Day lunch, featuring pickled herring and schnapps, is a big deal.

There’s more recent history tied to May Day, too. The History website points out May Day took on a new meaning as an International Workers Day in the 19th century, which grew out of a movement for labor rights and an eight-hour work day in the United States.

“So, does May Day have anything to do with the distress call ‘mayday’?” one Inter Lake inquiring reporter asked.

Turns out, May Day and mayday have no connection. The international distress code — “mayday, mayday” — was invented in 1923 by an airport radio officer in London.

“Challenged to come up with a word that would be easily understood by pilots and ground staff in case of an emergency, Frederick Mockford coined the word ‘mayday’ because it sounded like ‘m’aider,’ a shortened version of the French term for ‘come and help me,’” according to History.

Our staff got a little history lesson as we talked about May Day, but beyond that I doubt any of us will celebrate on May 1. Perhaps I’ll bring some pickled herring to work.

News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or

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