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, May first, is also known as May Day when referring to the traditional celebration that takes place on this day and which goes back to ancient pagan spring festivals celebrated by many northern hemisphere cultures around this time. The term May Day, which is always written with two capitalized words, goes back to the 13th century. In Spanish, both the date and the holiday can be expressed as either primero de mayo or uno de mayo, though the former is more common, and it is typically written with capitals, as Primero de Mayo, unlike regular dates, since it refers to a festivity and is thus treated as a proper name.[1]

In the Roman tradition, such spring festivals were associated with Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. The date for this festival was April 27 during the Republican era and during the Empire it signalled the start of Ludi Florae, ‘the Games of Flora’, which lasted six days. 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.[2] All over Europe, the traditional celebrations involve dancing, singing, community gatherings, and general merriment.

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 in Irish Gaelic. 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, which marked the beginning of winter, around November 1; Imbolc, which marked the beginning of spring or end of winter, around February 1; and Lughnasadh or Lughnasa, around August 1, which falls between the summer solstice (around June 21) and the fall equinox (around September 21), which marked the beginning of the harvest season.

Figure 165: 2004 New York Renaissance Faire in the Maypole Meadow[i]

May Day celebrates the beginning of warm weather in the northern hemisphere or, in other words, summer. Nowadays summer starts technically on the summer solstice, around June 21, but this wasn’t always the case. In earlier times, only two main seasons were recognized, a colder one, which was called winter, and a warmer one, which was called summer, and the names for the transitional ones, spring and fall, came much later (cf. Part II, Chapter 23, §23.9). That is why the summer solstice is traditionally known as midsummer in English. Actually, although the astronomical date of the solstice is around June 21, what we know as midsummer is traditionally celebrated in Europe on June 24, starting the evening of June 23. The summer solstice is known in Spanish as solsticio estival, though the more common name for this day is día de San Juan ‘Saint John’s day’ since this is the day the festivities of Saint John is celebrated, namely June 24, starting the eve of that day, as we just mentioned.

The division of the year into four periods 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 actual weather conditions, which vary from place to place, depending mostly on latitude (distance from the tropics). The division of the year into four periods or seasons that we use today comes to us from the Romans (Lat. tempora anni ‘times of the year’), though many other ancient cultures, including the Chinese (which are also in the northern hemisphere) divide the year into four seasons as well. In many places, meteorological seasons are reckoned instead 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, typically called the rainy season and the dry season, which is what we find in many Spanish-speaking countries close to the Equator, where the former is known as invierno ‘winter’ and the latter as verano ‘summer’. In India, six seasons are distinguished and in Ancient Egypt, three.

As is well known, 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. Actually, the most extreme hot or cold temperatures come after those dates, 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 is why the date of May 1st makes sense as the time to celebrate the beginning of the warm season or 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, typically with religious overtones. As usual, there were Christian attempts to associate these traditional celebrations with Christian devotions, such as those associated with the Virgin Mary. They are known as Marian devotions (Sp. devociones marianas) and they are held during this whole month that eventually came to 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 only 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 in the north. 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 month of March or early April (cf. §44.6.6.2). 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.

The word mayo in Spanish has a secondary meaning, besides being the name of the fifth month of the year. The meaning is ‘maypole’. A maypole is ‘a decorated pole round which people traditionally dance on May Day holding long ribbons attached to the top’ (COED), cf. Figure 165 above. The DLE defines this second sense of the word mayo as ‘tree or tall pole adorned with ribbons, fruits and other things that was set up in a public place in villages and that young men and women would go to during the month of May to have fun with dances and other festive activities’.[3] It is not clear what the exact symbolism of the maypole is, though several have been proposed, including that is may have been a phallic symbol. In some countries, however, maypoles are erected for midsummer celebration instead of on May Day. The maypole is primarily a Germanic tradition, though other cultures have borrowed it as well. The tradition was lost in many places in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, and it is rare in the Spanish-speaking world today. In Spain, it was particularly popular in the region of Castilla-La Mancha.

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 that took place in May 1886. During a peaceful rally in support of the 8-hour workday the police killed several workers, resulting in riots and many more deaths. International Workers’ Day is also known as Workers’ Day or even Labour Day in some English-speaking countries. This day is often referred to as May Day, though this celebration should not be confused with the traditional May Day celebrations. Most countries around the world celebrate May 1st as Workers’ Day or Labor Day, which is a legal holiday in those countries. The United States is one of the few countries that does not, celebrating its own Labor Day on the first Monday of September instead, which became a federal holiday in 1894. Because this workers’ holiday is celebrated in all the Spanish-speaking world, the term Primero de Mayo ‘May Day’ is mostly associated with that Worker’s Day, which is known as Día Internacional de los Trabajadores, and not with the traditional seasonal celebrations which, again, are not as popular in Spanish-speaking countries as they are in English-speaking countries.

Before leaving this festivity, 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 might appear to. 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’.[4] 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 traditionally 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.



[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 enero or primero de enero to refer to the first day of the month of January, but only dos de enero to refer to the second day, not *segundo de enero, although it is also possible, of course, to say el segundo día de enero ‘the second day of January’. In Spanish, such phrases are usually written in lower case, e.g. uno de febrero or primero de febrero ‘February 1st’, just like the names of the months, the names of the days of the week, or the names of the seasons always are. However, the names of festivities, wether religious or not, are capitalized in Spanish, as in this case, for they are seen as proper nouns, not common nouns. Other examples of this are Día Internacional de los Trabajadores ‘International Workers Day’, Día de la Madre ‘Mother’s Day’, and Navidad ‘Christmas’.

[2] Other Anglicised spellings for this Gaelic May Day festival are Beltain, Beltainne, Beltaine, Bealtaine, and Beltany. The German celebration of Walpurgis Night is also known as Saint Walpurgis Night, Saint Walpurga’s Eve, or Saint Walburga’s Eve (in German, Sankt Walpurgisnacht). The reason for this name is that this saint, an abbess in medieval Francia who converted many locals to Christianity, was canonized on that day in the year 870.

[3] The original Spanish version has: ‘Árbol o palo alto, adornado de cintas, frutas y otras cosas, que se ponía en los pueblos en un lugar público, adonde durante el mes de mayo concurrían los mozos y mozas a divertirse con bailes y otros festejos’.

[4] The French verb aider ‘to help’ is cognate with English aid and with Spanish ayudar, since they all descend from Latin adiūtāre ‘to help, aid, assist’, originally a frequentative version of the verb adiuvāre, with the same meaning (cf. the English adjective adjuvant derived from this verb’s present participle which is used in medicine.



[i] Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_York_RenFaire_2004_maypole.JPG , By KenL at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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