The 4 seasonal turning point of Europe’s old pagan calendar have successfully survived the vicissitudes of centuries and have been seemingly preserved in various Christian and secular guises. So we have Lammas Day (“Loaf-Mass” Day) on August 1, Halloween and All Saints on October 31 and November 1, Candlemas Day and Groundhog Day on February 2, and finally May Day on May 1).
Thoroughly rooted in pre-Christian paganism, May Day seems have been the occasion least amenable to effective Christianization. The Puritans tried mightily to suppress it, of course. Under Puritan influence, the English Parliament outlawed maypoles in 1644. Then in the 19th century, by one of those accidents of historical coincidence, May Day acquired a whole new identity as various labor movements (and later by the communist party) adopted it as a day of socialist solidarity. In an attempt to counteract this celebration of socialism Pope Pius XII in 1955 proclaimed May 1 as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, belatedly giving the old pagan – now secular and socialist – May Day a Christian character. With collapse of communism, the modern May Day of workers’ solidarity is undoubtedly much diminished. As for St. Joseph the Worker, even the liturgical calendar has downgraded the one-time 1st class feast to a merely optional memorial!
For me, May means summer is almost here. While I am certianly not insensitive to summer’s charms, I confess I have often welcomed summer’s arrival with only modest enthusiasm. Having come of age in a world with little or no air-conditioning, I have never really relished the summer heat. At some deeper emotional level, however, I think I have always associated summer with disruption. Perhaps because I was in school – either as a student or as a teacher – for most of the first half of my life (and always liked school much more than I ever disliked it), the end of the school year has always seemed somewhat sad to me. More than any other time of year, the months of May and June are the season of separation, par excellence. And for me that has always made them somewhat melancholy months.
So I also appreciate the irony that in the 20th century the word "Mayday" also became a recognized signal of distress!