Did you celebrate May Day yesterday by festooning yourself in garlands of bright-colored flowers, gamboling friskily about a maypole, and crowning a nubile young woman as the Queen of the May? Probably not. But that’s what some of your ancestors did, and what some people still do in many parts of the world.
The celebration of May Day, as the beginning of the farming season, originated in Roman times with festivals in honor of Flora, the goddess of flowers. The practice was taken up by various pagan cultures in Germany and Britain. No one is sure what the maypole symbolized. It might have represented spring growth. It could have been the tree of life. Possibly it symbolized Yggdrasil, the center of the cosmos in Norse mythology. Or perhaps it was a portrayal of a giant phallus. Take your choice.
May Day is not to be confused with mayday, an international signal of a life-threatening emergency, used by ships, aircraft, police, fire workers, medical personnel, and anybody else experiencing a disaster who wants to seek help from those within earshot. The term was first used in 1923 by Frederick Stanley Mockford, a traffic controller at Croydon Airport near London. Since much of the air traffic at Croydon came from France, he devised the word “mayday” from the French m’aidez, which means “Help me!” For maximum results, you’re supposed to say it three times without pause.
Mayday rhymes with heyday, which means the highest point of excitement, health, happiness, youth, or prosperity. It probably stemmed from the German expression heida, which simply means “Hey, there!” and was an exclamation denoting frolicsomeness or surprise.
One of the earliest uses of heyday on record is in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, published in 1602, when the Danish prince tells his mother: “…at your age, the heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble, and waits upon the judgment…” Cheeky kid.
When the Bard of Buffalo Bayou was asked to use both mayday and heyday in one of his poetic excrescences, this is what he produced:
The livin’ was easy
Back in my heyday,
My lifestyle was breezy,
I thought things were Grade-A.
But now I get queasy
When I approach payday,
‘Cause my take-home is cheesy,
And I want to yell “mayday!”