Missiles, maypoles and mayhem


Happy May Day.

And if you’re wondering what we’re supposed to be celebrating on this first day of the fifth month the line forms here, right behind me.

Back when I was a gangling, crew-cut lad full of questions up in Oakwood I’m sure I asked, probably more than once, what the day meant because it was mentioned often enough for me to wonder about it. But I either never got a definitive answer or I couldn’t make much of it.  All I know is that I was perplexed.

Whenever somebody shouted “May Day! May Day!” in the movies something very bad usually happened, like a plane spiraling to earth or a ship sinking beneath an angry sea.

And every year Walter Cronkite – we never watched Huntley and Brinkley on another channel on our big Zenith: my mother didn’t care for Mr. Brinkley’s constant smirk – described the May Day parade over in Moscow, complete with images of plump Comrade Khrushchev saluting tanks and missiles and goose-stepping troops as they went by his reviewing stand.  I might not have been the sharpest pencil in the box, but I was smart enough to know that, so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, we wouldn’t be celebrating Communists and their weaponry.

The fact is I didn’t have a clue what the day signified.  And I’m not much better off now. So I set my crack research team (Google.com) to work clearing everything up.

Having perused some of the data that was generated, I can report that the only things the various sources seem to agree on are that the origins of May Day lie so far back in misty history that the specifics are blurry at best, and at some point the day was given over to the appreciation of workers.  Apparently everything began with a pagan celebration of the arrival of spring, complete with sacrifices, the consumption of copious amounts of wine and mead, and a good bit of misbehaving.  Probably because of the wine and mead.

When the early Christian church took over the day they weren’t about to have any such shenanigans, so it became considerably holier. But some remote pockets of Gaelic folk were far enough removed, geographically and philosophically, from pope and bishop to hang on to some of the original festivities.  Like dancing around a maypole for example.

Centuries later May Day became a worker’s holiday, a precursor of Labor Day, the American celebration of which, to further complicate matters, falls not in May but on the first Monday in September.

Several of the sources mentioned that at some point it became common to hang little sacks of wildflowers on friends’ and neighbors’ doorknobs on May first.  To hearken back to the whole spring festival motif, I guess.  If any of that was going on during my youth I must have missed it.  People would bring covered dishes of good food when somebody died, and fresh vegetables when they’d grown more than they could eat, but I can’t quite imagine the citizens of Oakwood, pragmatic and sensible souls, hanging flowers on doors.

I do remember being made to dance around a maypole once.  That would almost certainly have been at the Oakwood School Coronation, an annual spring event. All the grades, 1 though 12, took part in that extravaganza that was attended by the entire town in the school auditorium.  The King and Queen, always seniors, were crowned and their court was made up of a duke and duchess from each class.  I always wanted to be elected duke, which meant all I had to do was wear a white coat and a narrow snap-on black bow tie and escort the duchess down the aisle and sit on the stage for the rest of the evening. If I wasn’t the duke I had to take part in some sort of group dance with the other kids in my class, like the unfortunate “Sweethearts on Parade” routine to a Guy Lombardo Orchestra recording that lodged itself tenaciously in my memory and will not go away.

And I’m pretty sure we did a maypole dance one year when I wasn’t a duke. I’m just as certain that the wildly applauding audience wouldn’t have known the significance of it being called a maypole or its association with the first day of May.   Neither, a good many years later, do I.

Anyway, Happy May Day.

Whatever the heck it means.



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