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May Day or Mayday?

May 01, 2016 12:35PM ● By Julie Ross

May Day or Mayday? 

As I turned the page on my kitchen calendar to jot down an appointment, I noticed “Early May Bank Holiday – United Kingdom” listed at the bottom of the little square for the first Monday in May. Bank Holiday? What ever happened to May Day in Europe, where revelers frolic joyously around a Maypole to welcome spring?

Evidently, in most of the United Kingdom, the first Monday in May is now observed as a holiday to “celebrate and demand” rights for workers, which seems to be something of a contradiction in terms. Are they hosting a party or a protest?

I much prefer the dancing-around-a-Maypole-version of an early May celebration rather than a humdrum “bank holiday.” In olden times, villagers used a tree or put up a tall pole with long colorful ribbons attached to the top for the dance. The idea was for dancers to circle the pole, winding the ribbons around it to create a decorative pattern.

The concept seems pretty simple until you actually watch a video of the process and read about how the dance is performed. Here is how it works: Dancers are divided into two groups. Each member of one group grabs a couple of ribbons and skips clockwise around the pole. The other group holds ribbons and skips in a counter clockwise direction. As they approach each other, the dancers develop a pattern where they not only alternate skipping right and left of those going the opposite direction, they also pass the ribbons first over and then under each oncoming dancer. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, no?

According to my online source, the dance can be done walking, but “skipping is preferable.” Advice to potential Maypole dancers: Let’s not try to take this on right away. We will probably need all year, until next May, to put on a decent show.

Although the dance can be done with or without music, I recommend we plan to select something to accompany us as we execute these advanced moves. My source suggests something in a 6/8 time signature. Advice to potential Maypole musicians: For your May Day audition, make sure you have a nice jig or reel in your repertoire.

Now doesn’t that make you wonder what May Day has to do with the origin of the distress call “Mayday?” Perhaps extreme dancer ribbon entanglement caused the May Day audience to take a break from their rhythmic clapping to cry “Mayday” as a warning of impending multiple strangulations. Maybe this could have given rise to the alert now used primarily by mariners and aviators in instances of life threatening emergencies.

It turns out however, that is not the case. The international distress signal “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” (always said three times in a row for clarity) originated with London radio officer Frederick Stanley Mockford in 1923. In the course of his duties, Mockford was in frequent contact with Le Bourget airport in Paris. He came up with the alert “Mayday” because of its similarity to the French “m’aider,” or “help me.” 

So, in summary, there appears to be absolutely no connection between “May Day” and “Mayday.” I know, kind of disappointing, but aren’t you glad we’ve cleared that up?

Happy May -- Stay tuned for Maypole dance auditions next spring!

(Please note that making a false distress call is a federal crime, punishable by six years of imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $250,000. Maybe that’s why they call it the “Early May Bank Holiday” instead of “Mayday.”)

You can reach Julie at [email protected]