Once a pagan festival honoring fertility and spring, the Festival of the Maypole is still celebrated today in many regions of Germany. It’s said the custom of the maypole began around the tenth century, a tidbit I found here.
I think it might date earlier, however, to Roman times. Romans used to celebrate a feast called Floralia from April 28 to May 2 (according to Holiday Spot), so it could be an amalgamation of early European tribal customs and the Roman feast. In some parts of Germany, there was once the tradition where a bachelor would leave a “secret admirer” gift at the door of his beloved on the first of May.
So when I opened yesterday’s newspaper and read how police were hunkering down for the possible violence of another Seattle May Day, I suffered cognitive dissonance. The mental image of the Festival of the Maypole, gaily dressed boys and girls dancing around a maypole hung with ribbons and flowers, did not compute.
The distress signal “Mayday! Mayday!” was a much better fit. Which got me wondering: if the traditional first of May was a sunny rite of spring, how on earth did “Mayday” become a standard signal of distress?
I found my answer at the usual source: Wikipedia. As it turns out, “Mayday” derives from the French “m’aidez.” That makes much more sense. “M’Aidez!” means “Help me!”