Roxanne Tellier – May Day! May Day!
It’s May the first – a day when most of the northern hemisphere officially decides, “that’s it. Done with winter. Bring on the sun and the fun!”
I’ve always thought that May 1st would be a better start to the year then January 1st. No one feels much like kick-starting more than the snow blower in winter. May, on the other hand, is when you can shed the many layers you’ve bundled yourself into over the darkest months, like a snake sloughing off its outgrown skin.
Even the armchairiest of armchair gardeners eyes the sprouts of green peeking out of the earth, and tells themselves lies about the magic they’ll coax from the soil this year. Dreams of successful planting and transplanting, and visions of exotic fruits fresh plucked from your own trees, dance through your head like the sugarplums of Christmas. Garden paths that never overgrow! Bushels of perfectly formed, organic vegetables! Idyllic afternoons whiled away in draped pergolas, desultorily conversing with like-minded friends.
All of which lasts for about a week or ten days, before the great outdoors is abandoned in favour of a good book and a comfy couch safely indoors, where there are no midges or crawly things.
No one is immune from May’s siren call. Even Led Zeppelin couldn’t help but reference the occasion. “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now, It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.”
Ai eee! Spring cleaning! Washing your winter-stained windows in order to let the bright spring sun illuminate the dust bunnies you’ve cultivated whilst cocooning. Many gallons of cleaning goop will be purchased and used in the next few days, in a frenzy of scouring away the winter blues. Followed by many doctors being consulted for pain killers to numb the injuries stemming from long unused muscles strained during that frenzy.
I would much prefer to just dance around a flagpole, dressed in a long gown and draped with flowers, vying to be crowned the Queen of May, as they do in Europe. I mean, the month of May was named for the Greek Goddess Maia, who was identified with the earlier Roman Goddess of fertility, Bona Dea, whose festival was held in May. I’ll even take the pre-Christian Roman celebrations that revolved around Flora, the Goddess of flowers, or celebrate Walpurgis Night or Beltane with the witches. In any case, my first act upon being crowned Queen would be to dispense with ritual house cleaning, in favour of far more civilized communal celebrations, rejoicing at the promise of another sun-filled summer. Vote for me!
The Pagan holidays were sacrificed as Europe became Christianized, more’s the pity. Traditionally, May Day was associated with fertility; the earth is reborn, the cattle get frisky, and, with less clothing to get in the way, people tend to get a little friskier themselves. The church frowned on frisky.
But still, traditions remain. And some should be revived! In some part of the United States, early American settlers made small May Day baskets, filled with flowers or treats, and left them at the doorstep of someone they fancied. “The giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver; if caught, a kiss is exchanged.” – Wikipedia
If you were up very early this morning, you might have heeded the call sent by the Facebook group, Toronto Morris Men. “Sunrise in Toronto on 1st May 2016 is at 06:09. We’ll be at High Park, will you join us?”
It’s an old custom still celebrated in Ontario. “In Toronto, on the morning of May 1, various Morris Dancing troops from Toronto and Hamilton gather on the road by Grenadier Cafe, in High Park to “dance in the May”. The dancers and crowd then gather together and sing traditional May Day songs such as Hal-An-Tow and Padstow.” – Wikipedia
In the last century, and thanks to social democrats and unions, May 1st has become much less fanciful. Here’s a “did you know?” for you … What trade unions and labour movements now celebrate as the May 1st International Workers Day, started as a response to the annual holiday that stemmed from a union strike in Toronto. In December 1872, the Toronto Typographical Union staged a parade in support of the strike for a 58-hour work-week that had been going on since March of that year. George Brown (yes, he of George Brown College) was editor of the Toronto Globe at the time, and he called for the police to charge the union with “conspiracy,” which resulted in 24 leaders of the union being arrested. (Laws criminalizing union activities had already been abolished in England, but were still on the books in Canada.)
It was the seven trade unions that marched in Ottawa in protest that finally pushed then Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, to repeal the anti-union laws, and pass the Trade Union Act in 1873. We have been celebrating the occasion on the first Monday in September ever since.
In 1882, trade unionists in the United States, inspired by the Toronto unions’ bravery and success, proposed a similar holiday. But the Labour Day holiday did not become official until 1894, and still did not quite address the spirit of the movement.
The May 1st International Workers Day evolved from the 1904 International Socialist Conference in Amsterdam, when the Sixth Conference of the Second International, called on “all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”
May 1st was chosen to commemorate the May 1886 Haymarket incident in Chicago, where a bomb was thrown at police attempting to disperse a public assembly calling for an eight-hour workday. In response, the police fired on the workers, and killed four demonstrators.
It might then be logical to assume that the term chosen to indicate a state of emergency (Mayday!) would have come from the Chicago incident as well. But it actually originated in 1923, when a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, England, was asked to decide on a word easily understood by pilots and ground staff in an emergency.
“Since much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, Frederick Stanley Mockford proposed the word “Mayday” from the French “m’aider”, a shortened version of “venezm’aider” (meaning “come and help me”). – Wikipedia
The term, always said three times in repetition, replaced the Morse code SOS. Calling Mayday!is now taken so seriously in the United States that it is a federal crime to make a false distress call, and will get you up to six years in jail, and/or a fine of up to $250,000.
At the moment, it’s a gray, chilly morning in Toronto. I missed the Morris Dancers, (rats!) but if I hustle, I can get down to the square at Yonge and Dundas, where a rally and march will begin at 1:00 pm. This year’s theme highlights the struggles of resistance to anti-black racism, police brutality, and issues deeply affecting black communities, along with Indigenous sovereignty, gender justice, anti-poverty and anti-austerity organizations.
Or, in the spirit of my ancestors, I could find me a May Pole to dance around, and a hedgerow with a bustle looking for a May queen. I always did fancy being royalty for a day …
Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday
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Roxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. She has also been a vocalist with many acts, including Tangents, Lady, Performer, Mambo Jimi, and Delta Tango. In 2013 she co-hosted Bob Segarini’s podcast, The Bobcast, and, along with Bobert, will continue to seek out and destroy the people who cancelled ‘Bunheads’.
This entry was posted on May 1, 2016 at 3:48 pm and is filed under Opinion, Review with tags armchair gardeners, Beltane, Bob Segarini, Chicago, DBAWIS, Haymarket, High Park, International Socialist Conference, International Workers Day, Labour Day, Led Zeppelin, Maia, May, May Day baskets, Mayday!, Morris Dancing, Morse code, Queen of May, Roxanne Tellier, Sir John A. MacDonald, Spring cleaning, Toronto Globe, Toronto Typographical Union, Walpurgis Night, Yonge and Dundas. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.