May Day ranks right up there with Maundy Thursday and Mischief Night as a holiday that sounds like it’s from straight-up yesteryear. I didn’t realize this until I made a passing reference to all of the kids bringing flowers for our teacher on May 1st. My friend gaped at me, and I continued, oblivious. “You know, you’d bring tulips or lilacs from your yard, and wrap the steps in a wet paper towel with some tin foil, and then she’d put it in a vase by the statue of Mary.” And as the words spilled out of my mouth, I realized that I sounded like a quaint villager from olden times. Mind you, this was the 1990s, in an urban area, in New York State, but it sounds like I was from whatever the Catholic version of a shtetl is.
So yes, world, people celebrate May Day. A lot of people, even! And not just people from yore! Here’s how.
You might have gone to Catholic school if making the May Court was a bigger deal than Prom Queen. If you aren’t familiar, this is going to sound ridiculous so just bear with me. Here’s how it worked in my school. A representative from each class (read: a goody-goody) would be chosen to march up the aisle during Mass and put a flower in a vase near the statue of Mary. Then a court would be selected from the oldest class, and for real it was just an all-girl version of a Homecoming Court. One girl was voted the “May Queen” and she had the great honor of … putting a flower crown on the statue’s head. This was before Coachella made flower crowns the ubiquitous accessory they are today, and I was terribly jealous of the May Queen’s matching flower crown. Other schools had teachers select the court – probably a better way to go – and some had a young child be the May Queen instead. I know this because in kindergarten my aunt was, in my grandfather’s words “Queen Of The Whole May.” And me? No teacher ever picked me to be the class representative, even though my number one extracurriculars were exceeding expectations and obeying authority — because my mom was a teacher at the school and it would have looked like favoritism. Thanks, ma. But now I’m an adult and can put flowers into vases any old time I want, so it’s fine.
I thought surely May Poles were just an activity at Renaissance Faires, but they are real! Not only real, but relatively common(…ish) in Great Britain! It’s a bank holiday there, you got to do something with that time off. A number of cities and towns have festivals with music, dancing, flower boats, streaking, and – yes – May Poles. When I was a kid I thought it would be pretty fun to frolic around a may pole in a white dress, but to keep those ribbons from getting screwed up it’s probably a bit of a delicate operation. In Rhineland, girls even get maypoles from their love interests (happy May, here’s a weird fertility symbol?). News reports today mentioned maypoles in such exotic locations as New Jersey and the Bay Area, so obviously this is a time-honored, worldwide tradition that I’ve just never been lucky enough to witness.
Did you “dance in the May?” Well, a lot of people still do! This English folk dance is performed on May Day across England – as well as in Scotland, Australia and even parts of North America. Imagine something a little like Irish dance, but with fun rhythmic accessories like bells and sticks.
This tradition lives – my cousin’s girlfriend just posted about her little girl making May Baskets at school this morning. Within minutes I read an NPR article calling it a “forgotten tradition.” It’s like a gentler version of ding dong ditch. They’re little baskets – often cone-shaped and made of paper – that you hang on somebody’s door just because, as best I can tell, it’s a nice thing to do. If there are any May Day traditions that we should bring back in full force, it’s this one. If Google Images is to believed, some people even treat it like a straight-up Easter Basket. Look, if somebody wants to give me a basket full of treats and I don’t have to bid on it in a silent auction, I’ll take it.
May Day originated as a time to celebrate the coming of spring. For those of us in Northern latitudes, the season may technically start in March, but May 1 is the beginning of when you can expect that you won’t have to brush snow off of your car or wear your Big Puffy Coat. It became a celebration of Mary once Europe was Christianized, and then in the 19th century May 1st was declared International Workers’ Day. Workers still struggle to earn a fair wage in safe conditions, and on May 1 members of the labor movement protest in many major cities. In some parts of the world, International Workers’ Day protests have grown to encompass other issues like immigrants’ rights and government corruption. The labor movement isn’t just for unionized workers or college kids with communist flags on their backpacks. If you don’t control the means of production, if your work makes someone else money and you want to be paid fairly, then this is your day, too.