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Jenifer’s Journal: May Day

The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May. — Edwin Way Teale

It’s May Day this Sunday. Anyone remember May baskets? 

On May 1 morning every year, my brothers and I would come down to that same yellow Formica kitchen table, launching pad for so many of our special days, to find little “baskets,” usually a tea cup or tiny pitcher, filled with a rainbow of small flowers from the yard: daffodils, violets, lilies of the valley, and something pink, but I’m not sure what. 

My mother told us that in her day, kids would make baskets out of paper, fill them with flowers, and stealthily sneak around hanging them from the neighbors’ doorknobs. The goal was to rap on the doors and run away without being seen.

Now that sounds like fun, especially considering that, according to my mother, the choice of houses was often inspired by the cute boy or girl living there who just happened to be the object of someone’s secret admiration. All we ever managed in our day, however, was bringing a basket to our teacher. Ho-hum.

No question about it, though, May is irresistible. It promises the lushness of June, while still managing to retain a touch of April’s translucent innocence. Little wonder that its coming has been celebrated for millennia. According to history.com.: “The Celts of the British Isles believed May 1 to be the most important day of the year, when the festival of Beltane was held. This May Day festival was thought to divide the year in half, between the light and the dark. Symbolic fire was one of the main rituals of the festival, helping to celebrate the return of life and fertility to the world. When the Romans took over the British Isles, they brought with them their five-day celebration known as Floralia, devoted to the worship of the goddess of flowers, Flora. Taking place between April 20 and May 2, the rituals of this celebration were eventually combined with Beltane. Another popular tradition of May Day involves the maypole … historians believe the first maypole dance originated as part of a fertility ritual, where the pole symbolized male fertility and baskets and wreaths symbolized female fertility.

“The maypole never really took root in America, where May Day celebrations were discouraged by the Puritans [surprise!]. But other forms of celebrations did find their way to the New World. During the 19th and 20th centuries, May Basket Day was celebrated across the country, where baskets were created with flowers, candies and other treats and hung on the doors of friends, neighbors and loved ones on May 1.” 


It turns out, though, by the late 19th century, May Day took on a far more serious meaning. Again, according to the history.com: “…at the height of the Industrial Revolution, thousands of men, women and children were dying every year from poor working conditions and long hours. In an attempt to end these inhumane conditions, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which would later become the American Federation of Labor, or AFL) held a convention in Chicago in 1884. The FOTLU proclaimed ‘eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.’

“By 1889, May 1 had become International Workers’ Day and the date took on added significance in Russia, in the wake of an early and violent workers’ uprising that would lead to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Decades later, early May assumed an even more ponderous importance when, in 1945, May 9 became not only Victory Day for the Allies, commemorating Japan’s surrender but, in the USSR, it marked the anniversary of the capitulation of Nazi Germany. An article in The Moscow Times from a year ago cited ‘Victory Day parades, which only became an annual event after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and have taken on increasing importance in projecting Russia’s renewed military might during Putin’s two decades in power…’”

This year Putin is flexing that military might as he ravages the sovereign nation of Ukraine. The pundits are unable to predict just how far he will go in his brutality, hungry as he is for a major victory upon which he can feast in the upcoming May 9 “celebration.” 

What has happened to May, that glorious, light-struck symbol of spring?  “All things seem possible,” yes, but these days, that’s the trouble.

The meaning of May Day that resonates most with me at this very scary time has nothing to do with May. It is the internationally recognized distress signal which actually comes from the French, “M’aidez!”  Help me.

I have only an 11th grade knowledge of French, but may I offer an amended term, on behalf of Ukraine and the world  — Aidez-nous.