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May Day
Nature Bulletin No. 715   April 27, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

MAY DAY
You must wake and call me early,

call me early, mother dear;
For I'm to be Queen o' the May, mother,
I'm to be Queen o' the May. (Tennyson.

Sixty years and more ago, May Day was an occasion for festivities and fun in many country towns. At daybreak on the first day of the fifth month we youngsters went "a-maying". We brought back freshly picked wildflowers and put them in little baskets which we hung on the front door knobs of our favorite people. If you were secretly sweet on some winsome lass she got a special basket, maybe with a bow of ribbons on the handle.

In those days wildflowers were abundant and we did not know that it is wrong to pick them -- that because of such picking, year after year, most of them would gradually disappear. There was also a Queen of the May, one of the loveliest girls in town; and a Maypole, twined with ribbons and with ropes of flowers, around which we danced and sang at the ends of colored streamers from its top.

Those customs were descended principally from the boisterous laughter-loving folk of "merry England". During medieval and Tudor times, May Day was a great public holiday. At dawn all classes of people went a-maying and brought back wildflowers, branches of trees, and maypoles which were set up on the green or common in each village and town. There were dances and singing around the Maypole when the queen was crowned, followed by games, vaulting and archery contests until evening when there was a bonfire and morris dancing. When the Puritans came into power the Maypole and such festivities were forbidden by an Act of Parliament but after the Restoration in 1660, when Charles II became king, they were revived.

Meanwhile the Plymouth colony of Pilgrims and the Massachusetts Bay colony of dour Puritans had been established in America; also a colony of "sinners" at what their leader, Thomas Morton, called Merry Mount -- now Quincy, Mass. When they erected a Maypole, Capt. Miles Standish and a party of Pilgrims marched up there and cut it down. They denounced "that Stinking Idol reviving feasts of ye Roman goddess Flora or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians". The Puritans purged the New England coast of "joylitty", prohibiting celebrations of May Day and also Christmas -- another Roman "corruption" and survival from heathen days.

The Floralia, a six-day Roman festival (April 28 to May 3) in honor of Flora, goddess of flowers, was featured by licentious theatrical performances. Our month of May was the third month, called Maius, in the Roman calendar and the name was probably derived from Maia who, in Greek mythology, was the eldest of the seven Pleiades, mother of Hermes, and the goddess of spring.

The first of May is a great popular festival in southern and central Sweden. On its eve, huge bonfires blaze on all the hills and every hamlet has a bonfire round which the young people dance and sing. There, and in parts of France, Germany and other countries, the "May- tree" -- lavishly decorated by village maidens -- is raised with ceremonies after which the people sing and dance around it. A May Day Queen is as traditional in France as in England, Wales and Ireland.

At the second International Socialist congress in 1889, May 1st was designated as an international labor holiday. In every industrial country it is celebrated with parades and speeches, especially and on a vast scale in Soviet Russia where it is a national holiday and you attend -- or else.


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