e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

May Day

Today, 1st May, is traditionally May Day and a day of celebration and holiday.

In the modern world it’s moved around to fall on the first Monday of the month and be added to a weekend. Only Christmas and New Year get to keep a mid-week position if they happen to fall that way.

In Britain there are a lot of traditions associated with today.

I can remember as a child at primary school being taught to dance around a maypole. In this dance each child holds one end of a ribbon the other end of which is tied to the top of the pole. As you dance you weave in and out of the other dancers and this causes the ribbons to plait into a complex figure a bit like a plaited tent – if you’ve done the dance properly. If you haven’t the whole thing ends up with some very interesting knots.

One of the things I inherited from my father, is an ability to undo almost any knot. He didn’t teach me this; I did it naturally from an early age. I find it interesting that every cell in my body contains DNA that codes for knot-untangling. So at school I was the one assigned to deal with the maypole-dance disasters. I liked doing it (exercising any skill is enjoyable) and it gave me a chance to slightly impress my fellow students.

May Day is an old festival and a joyful one, so not surprisingly there’s a good deal of poetry and song about it. In some the day is only mentioned obliquely, as in this one by Keats:

Fragment of an Ode to Maia. Written on May Day 1818

Mother of Hermes! and still youthful Maia!
May I sing to thee
As thou wast hymned on the shores of Baiae?
Or may I woo thee
In earlier Sicilian? or thy smiles
Seek as they once were sought, in Grecian isles,
By bards who died content on pleasant sward,
Leaving great verse unto a little clan?
O give me their old vigour! and unheard
Save of the quiet primrose, and the span
Of heaven, and few ears,
Rounded by thee, my song should die away
Content as theirs,
Rich in the simple worship of a day.

More recently, May Day has become Workers or Labour Day and its traditions include trade union demonstrations and workers’ conferences.

As such it will no doubt still be celebrated in the far future on other planets – outer space may not have a May but it will have workers.


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