Monday, April 30, 2018

May Day

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 44, Words about Religion, of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

The first day of the month of May, or May First, is also known as May Day (Sp. Primero de Mayo, uno de mayo).[1] It is a day of celebration that goes back to ancient pagan spring festivals and holidays that many northern hemisphere, European cultures celebrated around this time. In the Roman tradition, such spring festivals are associated with Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. In the Celtic tradition, the celebrations are associated with Beltane, the Gaelic May Day festival, and in the Germanic tradition, with the Walpurgis Night celebrations. The traditional celebrations all over Europe involve dancing, singing, community gatherings, and general merriment.

Figure 146: 2004 New York Renaissance Faire in the Maypole Meadow[i]

The Celtic celebration of Beltane marked the beginning of the summer season in which cattle was marched to its summer pastures in the mountains. It was celebrated on May 1st, that is, in between the spring solstice (around March 21) and the summer solstice (around June 21). The word Beltane is the Anglicized name for this Gaelic festival, which in Irish, for example, is known as Lá Bealtaine ([l̪ˠaː ˈbʲal̪ˠt̪ˠənʲə]). This celebration is associated with religious rituals to protect the cattle, crops, and the people. Beltane was one of four major Gaelic festivals, the other ones being Samhain, marking the beginning of winter, around November 1; Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring, around February 1; and Lughnasadh or Lughnasa, around August 1, between the summer solstice (around June 21) and the fall equinox (around September 21), marking the beginning of the harvest season.

May Day celebrates the end of the winter and the beginning of the ‘summer’ or warm weather in the northern hemisphere, though nowadays summer starts technically on the summer solstice, around June 21, which was earlier known as Midsummer in English. Midsummer Day is now known as the summer solstice (Sp. solsticio estival) in the northern hemisphere (winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, Sp. solsticio vernal), commonly associated with the festivities of Saint John (Sp. el día de San Juan), which is June 24, which is around the time when the warmest weather starts to be felt in the northern hemisphere.

The division of the year into four seasons with the actual dates set by astronomical dates in absolute terms, the equinoxes and solstices, was used primarily by the Celts in Europe and they only correspond approximately with weather conditions, which vary from place to place, depending mostly on latitude (distance from the tropics). Thus, most people pay scant attention to those firm dates. In many places, meteorological seasons are reckoned instead, especially near the tropics, where the differences between the seasons may not be associated with temperature changes and with changes in agricultural practices as much as in more northern latitudes. It is common in these latitudes to divide the year into two seasons, such as the rainy and dry seasons, which is what we find in many Spanish-speaking countries.

The varying temperatures during the seasons have to do with the varying tilt of the Earth towards the sun. The Sun’s rays hit the Earth at the most direct angle during the summer equinox and at the least direct angle during the winter equinox. The further away from the tropics, the more noticeable the temperature differences are. The most extreme temperatures come after those dates, however, due to something known as the seasonal lag, which has to do with the large amount of heat or coldness retained in oceanic water. The lag may be of 2-3 weeks at the poles and as much as 12 weeks in lower latitudes. So, although spring starts officially around March 21, the change to consistent warmer weather doesn't start to be felt in the northern latitudes until the beginning of May, which explains why May 1st makes sense as the date to celebrate the beginning of summer.

As Europe became Christianized in the Middle Ages, the pagan holidays that celebrated May Day lost their traditional pagan religious overtones and became merely popular celebrations. As usual, there were also Christian attempts to associate these celebrations with Christian devotions, such as in this case those associated with the Virgin Mary. They are known as Marian devotions and they are held during this whole month that eventually came honor the Virgin Mary as the Queen of May. The traditions linking the Virgin Mary to the month of May go back many centuries, but they became more widespread in Catholic Europe during the 19th century culminating in official papal proclamations in the 20th century such as Pope Pius XII’s proclamation of the Queenship of Mary through his encyclical, Ad Caeli Reginam. In Protestant countries, on the other hand, cult of the Virgin Mary was greatly diminished since most Protestant Christian denominations came to see veneration and devotion of the Virgin Mary as Mariolatry, a form of idolatry.

The May Day traditions are strongest in the northern European countries of Germanic and, particularly, Celtic extraction, such as Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and England, but also in southern ones, such as Italy and Greece, and in many regions of Spain, especially the Celtic ones, such as Galicia. Today, these traditions have receded to a great extent, however, and are mostly associated with rural areas in the countryside. In Catholic countries, such celebrations are much less important for example than those associated with Easter that take place usually in the preceding month. However, the Festividad de los Mayos ‘Festivity of the Mays’, also known as Los Mayos ‘The Mays’ or Fiestas de Mayo ‘May Holidays’, and the Fiesta de las Cruces ‘Holiday of the Crosses’, are still celebrated in many places in the Spanish-speaking world and they no doubt have their origins in ancient pagan May Day festivities.

In 1889, May 1st was chosen as the date for International Workers' Day during the Second International in Paris to commemorate the Haymarket massacre in Chicago in May 1886, in which a peaceful rally in support of the 8-hour workday that took place in reaction to the killing of several workers by the police, resulted in riots and many deaths. Although International Workers’ Day is often referred to as May Day, it should not be confused with the traditional May Day celebrations. Most countries around the world celebrate May 1st as Workers’ Day, which is a legal holiday in those countries. The United States is one of the few countries that does not, celebrating Labor Day on the first Monday of September instead, which became a federal holiday in 1894. Because this workers' holiday is celebrated in all of the Spanish-speaking world, the primero de mayo 'May Day' is mostly associated with Worker’s Day, el día de los trabajadores, and not with the traditional seasonal celebrations.

Finally, we should mention a couple more issues related to May days and celebrations. One has nothing to do with the month of May, though it sounds like it might. We are referring to the English word mayday. This word refers to an international emergency procedure which is used as a distress signal in radio communications. The mayday procedure dates from 1923 and its source is the French phrase m'aider ‘(to) help me’, which is a shortened form of venez m'aider ‘come help me’. This was the voice equivalent of the earlier Morse code SOS message used in radio-telegraph communications for obtaining assistance.

Finally, we should mention the famous Mexican celebration of May 5, or Cinco de Mayo, which is well known by many in the United States as well, since it is a day in which Mexican-Americans celebrate their culture and Mexican heritage. Although some think that this day has to do with Mexican Independence, it is actually a commemoration of the Mexican Army’s unlikely victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862, a date that is not a national holiday in Mexico, though schools do close on that day. Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16, which is a national holiday. It commemorates the Cry of Dolores, a proclamation in the town of Dolores, that started Mexico’s war of independence from Spain in 1810. Cinco de Mayo started to be commemorated in California and other places in the western US with large Mexican populations soon after the battle as a celebration of Mexican cultural pride. In modern times, however, the holiday has been commercialized and trivialized to a great extent by the liquor industry and public schools, much like St. Patrick’s day, which celebrates Irish heritage and culture. (For more on the seasons, see the entry The names of the months: The seasons.)

[i] Source: , By KenL at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[1] In Spanish, the first day of the month is the only one that is, optionally, expressed as an ordinal number. Thus, one can say either uno de mayo or primero de mayo to refer to the first day of the month of May, but only dos de mayo to refer to the second day (of course, it is also possible to say el segundo día de mayo ‘the second day of May’). The festivity is known by either name as well, but more commonly as Primero de Mayo. Normally, such phrases are written in lower case, e.g. uno de febrero or primero de febrero ‘February 1st’, just like the names of the months always are. However, in the case of festivities, be they religious or something else, they are capitalized, as in this case, for they are seen as proper nouns, not common nouns. Other examples are Día Internacional de los Trabajadores ‘International Workers Day’, Día de la Madre ‘Mother’s Day’, and Navidad ‘Christmas’.

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