May Day: Word of the Week

Definition: May Day

Noun: An ancient northern hemisphere spring festival, usually held on April 30th to May 1st.

Noun ("mayday"): A distress call used by boats at sea when they are in trouble

Origins of May Day

People in Europe have been celebrating May Day for thousands of years.  It was celebrated long before any Christian holidays, and even before most traditions that go back to the early Roman empire.

May Day was originally a festival for Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, but since Christianity spread in Europe it has become a non-religious spring festival. In ancient times, spring was usually a time for celebration because winter was over and food became easier to find and grow.

Interesting fact: May Day, a festival of spring, is exactly 6 months away from All Hallows Eve (Halloween), which is in the middle of autumn.

Some May Day Traditions

The Maypole - A long, upright pole with streamers attached to the top.  Young children usually dance around the pole holding the streamers, so that they knot around the pole in a pattern. (like in the picture below)

Children dancing around a Maypole

A May Queen is often chosen during the day of 30th April (traditionally the most popular girl in the village)

May Baskets containing flowers, fruits and sweets or May Trees were often put together by teenagers and left on the doorsteps of the person they like.

May Day in Other Countries

All across Europe people celebrate May Day in different ways.  Here are some of them:

  • Germany: "Walpurgis Night" is celebrated with dancing and bonfires until the early hours of the morning
  • France: Workers are allowed to sell lilies of the valley (a type of flower) tax free, because King Charles IX was given one as a lucky charm in 1561
  • Ireland: Originally the feast of Bealtine, May Day is now usually when anti-government rallies are held
  • Finland: May Day in Finland is the only street carnival of its type, and is a huge party
  • Oxford, UK: Students gather at 6am on May 1st and listen to the choir sing traditional songs, then jump into the river Cherwell.  Lately, the river has been fenced off because people kept getting hurt.

The "Mayday" Distress Call

If you've ever watched a film where people are on a sinking ship or crashing plane, you might have heard them say, "mayday, mayday" into the radio.  This has nothing to do with May Day, but instead comes from the French phrase, "venez m'aider" which means "come help me".

Where's the best place in England to celebrate May Day?

There are May Day celebrations all over England, but some of the best happen right down the road from our English School in Oxford!

Does your country celebrate May Day?  If so, we'd love to hear what you and your friends and family usually do.

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