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On May Day everyone from Romans to Russians have a tradition to make merry. Even Hawaiians get in on the act

By Jim Kempton

Jim Kempton
Jim Kempton

The first of May could be a holiday suffering from multiple personality disorder. First, there is International Workers Day. While Russia and China commemorate the proletariat, the rest of the northern hemisphere revels in flower festivities. As days of observance go, these two holidays couldn’t be more contradictory; one identity dedicated to struggle and strife, the other embracing all things frivolous and frolicsome.

Workers’ day is a relative newcomer to the party in any case; May 1 has been celebrated as a pagan festival since pre-Christian times. Romans honored the goddess of flowers, Flora, the Celts threw the festival of Beltane and the Germanic Kingdoms celebrated the festival of Walpurgis Night. In Ireland the patron saint of workers was St. Joseph, whose feast was May 1. It’s a public holiday in Finland, France and Sweden. It’s called Spring Day in Estonia, Drunkards Day in Romania and Snake’s Day in Bulgaria (I haven’t got the room to explain that one).

Even the Polynesians get in on the fun.  In a region where flowers bloom supreme, Hawaiians know a good time when they see one. Lei day was established as an Island holiday in 1929. Each island has a different type of lei that is used for the celebration and for its people to wear.

Marking the beginning of spring, May Day has long been celebrated as a day of fertility — which means that early incarnations of the holiday involved all kinds of raucous debauchery. Along with the frisky antics, some other ritual activities were born as well.  Try them out; they are part of an ancient tradition and great fun with the kids: Light a bonfire like the Germans (not in the middle of the local parking lot of course). Have a party and add a Maypole in your own backyard. Go dancing like the Scots (but not while driving). Make a traditional May Punch with the strawberries (which are in season now) and alcohol if the party is adult (I advise those who are drinking the alcohol not to light the bonfires. Or dance near it for that matter).

Regrettably, May Day activities in the USA have faded over the last century. I, for one, would vote to revive this timeless tradition of merriment and mirth. It’s not just great fun—like Mother’s Day, Valentine’s, Halloween, Grad Night and Oktoberfest, it’s another holiday opportunity to stimulate the economy. (And continue the grand American tradition of commercializing any and all holidays.)

By the way, since I know all of you are wondering, the international distress signal “mayday” has nothing to do with the first of May. It derives from the French venez m’aider (pronounced mayday) meaning “call the Americans, the Germans are coming!”  No, no, I’m kidding. In French it translates to “come help me.”

And after lighting bonfires, crowning May Queens, feasting, delivering clandestine flower bouquets, dancing wildly and drinking punch all day, it might just be an appropriate term.

Jim Kempton is a San Clemente resident and May Day fan who has lit bonfires, danced around the Maypole and worn a lei while drinking lots of punch.

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