Nature Bulletin No. 715 April 27, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
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
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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Update: June 2012