May Day, Mayday…M’adiez!

Well, we’ve made it through to the start of another month. ‘Mayday ‘, I hear you cry!!  How often have I wanted to shout ‘Mayday’, the international distress signal, over the past 12 months.  I thought before talking about maypoles and bank holidays I would do a little research about the ‘Mayday’ call. 

Apparently it has nothing to do with the date at all.  Back in the early 1920’s there was a lot of air traffic between France and the UK and without radar and the type of telecommunications we have these days they needed a way of sending out a distress call without any chance of confusion.  There was Morse code and SOS but with the telephone system in place at the time there seemed to be a problem with distinguishing the letter ‘S’ clearly enough for everyone to use SOS with confidence. 

It fell to the officer in charge of Radio at the Croydon Airport, one Frederick Stanley Mickfield, to come up with a solution.  He had to find a word or series of words that could be easily understood both sides of the channel. As so often with the English language he decided to look at French and adapt it.  The French word or phrase ‘M’adiez’ means help me. In English Mayday meant nothing except a holiday but it was a sound that both languages were used to and an easy sound for the primitive radio equipment to convey with confidence. ‘M’adiez’ became Mayday and Mayday soon came to mean someone was in distress.

From Mayday to May Day.  In this part of the world there have always been celebrations around the start of May.  It’s easy to see why.  This year April has been dry and sunny, although I have to say occasionally much colder than it appeared looking through the window.  The number of times my choice of t- shirt and shorts has proven to be totally inappropriate attire…I shiver to think. April is the promise of good things to come with the trees nearly fully clothed again, the flowers blooming, birds up to all sorts of antics and the lovely lighter nights.

May is when it all comes to fruition.

The Celts used to celebrate May coming with the festival of Beltane.  It was a time when the livestock that had wintered in doors or close to home were set free to graze on the hills.  A lot of the celebrations involved lighting fires and as well as asking for mercy from the gods for their newly released livestock they were also asking for some help with the crops as well.  With this being a time when the ‘Fairy folk ‘were back to their busy best it was a time for a party in the hopes of keeping them happy.

When Rome was a Republic the Romans used to mark this period with Floralia, a festival dedicated to Flora the Roman goddess of flowers.  The highlight appears to have been a ceremony where the worshippers had bunches of beans and lupins thrown at them.  A century or 2 later, and with the evil dictator Emperor Commodus in charge, it had turned into a month long festival including the occasional ‘orgy thrown in for good measure!!!

May day has now become synonymous with the fight for workers’ rights.  It is amazing how quickly we have got used to the rights so hard fought for us by our great, great grandparents.  It is thought to date back to a strike by stonemasons in Australia in April 1856.  They called a strike in support for their claim to an eight hour working day. That inspired similar action by workers in France and the USA.  One of these strikes in Chicago on 4th May 1866 led to violence with many strikers and police officers being killed. 

As the news spread around the world workers began to organise and co-operate across borders. Finally, May day was recognised as a day for workers to show their solidarity across the world at the 1891 International Socialist Labour Congress of Brussels.  How lightly do we give them credit for putting their lives at risk to give us workers’ rights?

Anyway, back to May Day in 2021.  As we see new life in our parks and gardens I think finally we are starting to see new life in our own small worlds.  This time last year lockdown was in full force and a fear gripped the land.  Over this past year we all lost so much and so many but just as the flowers are starting to bloom again you do get a sense that we are at the start of a period or rebirth for us all.

Of course, the dreadful news from India is a stark warning that we are not out of the woods yet, but you do get the sense that in the words of Winston Churchill, even if this isn’t the beginning of the end, hopefully this is definitely the end of the beginning.

For us here in Wales our May day celebrations can widen a little on 3rd May. Next Monday we will see a whole raft of new rules and guidelines allowing more of us to mix and more places of outdoor hospitality to be shared. Let’s all pray that it goes to plan.

In a few months, when we get a chance to look back at these coming weeks I hope we are celebrating the success of the May day celebrations and not shouting ‘Mayday’ the distress call once again.