There’s Mayday and there’s May Day – the 1st day of the month of May which falls right in between spring equinox and the summer solstice.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday !!– interestingly has nothing to do with the lovely month of May. It’s the international signal for a distress call over the radio – and it has to be used only when the distress is real, life-threateningly real. And it has to be said three times so there is no confusion over static radio signals as to what the caller is saying.
Mayday as a distress signal started in 1923, when a radio officer at the Croydon Airport in London came up with this term – primarily because it sounded like the French word for help me m’aider. Also it had no ‘s’ or other sounds which tend to get lost over radio signals. For non-life-threatening issues the signal is pan-pan pan-pan pan-pan which is a derivation of another French word “penne,’ which means breakdown.
May Day on the other hand is a word that relates to this day which traditionally is celebrated with May flowers in baskets and dancing around maypoles. All across Europe, the seeds sown in springtime had started to sprout and this was cause for celebration – cattle were driven to pasture, special bonfires were lit, and people decorated their front doors and filled baskets with May flowers. Many of these festivities were shunned by the Puritans, and traditional May Day celebrations never really took hold in the US.
Starting with the 19th Century May Day took on a new significance – it became the International Workers’ Day – a day that celebrates the struggles and gains made by the labor movement such as the fight for an 8 hour work day in the US. May 1 was chosen as Workers’ Rights Day in 1889 as an homage to the May 4, 1886 Haymarket Riots in Chicago. The communist states embraced this day and used it unite workers against capitalism. It became famous for the spectacular annual May Day parade in the Red Square in Moscow. After the decline of communism, the importance of this day diminished in the communist countries.
(Images courtesy Old Farmer’s Almanac).