Most of us who have watched old movies may have heard the term “mayday” being used as a distress call. While the pure, unending frenzy of spring and the beginning of the garden season may have this extension agent screaming “Mayday! Mayday!” from time to time, that’s not what this article is about.
The May Day I’m talking about is an old holiday that is celebrated today. It was celebrated well before Christianity, but it isn’t as commonly celebrated as it once was. I have heard of it, but I’ve never really seen any celebrations locally.
Back before the Gregorian calendar was adopted, May 1 was considered the beginning of summer. The festival developed out of several festivals from different parts of the world around the same time, including Floralia, the late April festival celebrating the Roman goddess of flowers, Walpurgis night, celebrated on April 30 in Germanic countries and Beltane, celebrated on April 30 by Gaelic traditions.
What most people know as May Day comes from the British celebrations — dancing around the maypole where dancers circle a pole wrapping ribbons around it — and Morris dancing, which is choreographed stepping while wearing bells. It is a celebration of springtime and summer fertility, and many villages and towns have their own celebration.
The hawthorn tree, a member of the rose family, is a symbol of May Day. It’s profuse flowers were a symbol of spring fertility. And by the old calendar it was in bloom during early May (it is usually later now).
It was made into garlands, and branches were stuck in the ground and decorated. Some places had a taboo about bringing it inside the house, believing it was considered bad luck and would bring illness and death to the household. Some people said it smelled like the plague. It was later found that one of the scent compounds in the flowers resembles a chemical produced by rotting flesh.
Traditionally, it celebrated the end of the spring planting season and gave farm workers a much needed day off. However, today you could look at it as a call to garden (since the calendar has changed). It is a good reminder to get out and garden — the threat of frost has passed, or at least greatly diminished, and it is time to plant. So get out of the house and get in the garden. It’s time to plant.