Happy May Day!
by Pastor George Van Alstine

I really don’t know what I’m wishing you, because May Day is only a “kinda” holiday with no clear identifying theme. If you look on a calendar published in the US, you’re not likely to find any particular commemoration listed for May 1, and yet, we all seem to have a feeling that the date must mark some sort of special event. I found three distinct origins that might contribute to that feeling.

(1) May Day as a Spring Festival of Renewal: This has ancient pagan roots. Among northern European peoples, who experienced harsh winters and relatively mild summers, the year seemed to divide in half quite naturally; the dark, cold days began on November 1, and the brighter, warmer times began on May 1. Winter was the time of huddling for survival; summer the time of harvest and prosperity. So, May 1 was a day of dramatic change in mood, a time of dancing and rejoicing. In ancient pagan religions of England, Germany and Scandinavia, the May Pole, around which young people danced, became the symbol of the day and of the renewal spirit.

When the Christian Church came into these lands, it tried to embrace some of the positive aspects of the attractive May 1 celebrations. In the church calendar, the day came to be designated as the Feast of St. Philip and St. James, and these two saints became seen as the protectors of farm workers and craftsmen, whose fortunes improved with the new season. In time, believers were coaxed away from their May Poles and into churches. And yet, this never was seen as a major church holiday, so Christian and pagan practices coexisted without major conflict.

In the twentieth century western countries have experienced a resurgence of what can be called neo-paganism. Some have tried to reconstruct the beliefs and practices of Druids and other ancient religious movements and to repackage them along with some New Age concepts that have their roots in eastern religions. As a result, May Poles have popped up here and there on May 1. However, the movement does not seem to have grown very quickly

(2) May Day as a Rallying Point for Labor Movements: During the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, some of us became aware that in the Communist world May 1 was a day of special significance, when the movement of common working people toward power and self-governance was celebrated. In Moscow and other Communist capitals, massive military parades attempted to assure the proletariat of the inevitability of ultimate victory. Because the Russians loved May Day, Americans were supposed to hate it.

However, it’s interesting to note that the identification of May 1 as a significant day for common workers actually began in the US. In 1884 an amalgamation of labor unions in the Chicago area decided that the struggle for an eight-hour work day would be their major target, and that they would strategize to make this happen by May 1, 1886. When large companies, with the strong support of government, were able to thwart their efforts, workers in many cities went on strike. In Chicago, the center of the movement, this led to a large confrontation which resulted in a number of deaths and, after a sensational trial, the execution of four ringleaders. These events ultimately led to labor groups in Europe declaring May 1, 1890, as the first International Workers’ Day, which has been commemorated annually by various groups ever since. In Mexico, May 1 is called “Labor Day” and is one of five non-religious national holidays.

(3) May Day as an International Distress Call: Wherever people communicate by radio, it is clearly understood that if you’re in serious trouble, “in grave and imminent danger,” you need only to know the word(s) “May Day.” If you are the captain of a ship, the pilot of an airplane, or just a hiker on a vacation outing, no matter what language is spoken by those who hear your message, they will understand that you need immediate assistance. The phrase is to be repeated three times — “May Day, May Day, May Day” — so that your distress call can’t be mistaken for similar-sounding words in another language. When your call goes out, all other radio traffic has to stop immediately, so that rescuers can respond to you without interruption.

I thought that this word used for radio communication in an emergency was somehow related to May 1 on the calendar, but a little research told me otherwise. The distress call was developed by an English radioman who regularly communicated across the channel with French pilots. He chose the French word m’aider, which means “help me.” English ears have corrupted this to “May Day.”

So, when I wish you “Happy May Day!” it’s sort of multiple-choice. You can take it in the way that seems most appropriate for you this May 1. If you need a little cheering up after a dark time in your life, my “Happy May Day!” means, “You need and deserve a little romp around the May Pole!”

If you’ve been a bit self-centered and insensitive to others, my “Happy May Day!” means, “You’ll be happy only if you keep in mind your responsibility to help the many people who still exist in the world, for whom an eight-hour work day, for decent pay, seems to be an unreachable goal.”

But if you feel that right now you are “in grave and imminent danger,” pleased respond to my “Happy May Day!” by crying out loud and clear, “May Day, May Day, May Day!” Call loud enough so a friend can hear you. Call loud enough so that Pastor Connie, or myself, or one of ABC’s deacons can hear you. Meanwhile, be assured that God can hear you, even if you whisper. He keeps all channels open, all the time, just waiting for your signal. And he will be by your side quicker than you can imagine!

The Messenger will not be published next week, due to much-deserved staff vacations. Thanks for understanding.