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Defining May Day: A double meaning

By Kat Bergeron

 The next May 1 to fall on a Sunday will be in 2022. May Day marks the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.
KAT BERGERON/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALD The next May 1 to fall on a Sunday will be in 2022. May Day marks the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

May your May Day not be filled with distressing maydays!

They are so contradictory, these two twin names.

When I realized the rarity of this Sunday missive appearing on the first day of May, I began researching May Day. Those of us of a certain age remember dancing with ribbons around a school maypole, or perhaps receiving a basket of spring flowers.

May Day, like so many celebrations worldwide, is steeped in ancient history and folklore. It's appearance at the halfway mark between the spring equinox and summer solstice makes this calendar date a target for celebrating warmer weather, renewed life and the promises of sprouting green things. As the Bard himself observed in his Henry IV play, "As full of spirit as the month of May..."

Ancient origins of May Day festivities are linked to Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. I lived briefly in Ireland and remember well the bonfires of Beltane, the Celtic version of May Day, which is undergoing a modern cultural revival there.

Early editions of this 131-year-old newspaper are filled with local stories of May Day parties, maypole dances, songfests, May Queens and the like. Articles about special programs celebrating American laborers sometimes shared the news space, a direct link to May 1, 1886, when 300,000 workers in about 13,000 U.S. businesses walked off their jobs to make a point.

Chicago that year became the flashpoint for supporters of the eight-hour work day, something badly needed in the 1880s when many American industrialists showed little concern for the overworked, underpaid laborers who made them rich. May Day labor celebrations gave even more meaning to the ancient holiday.

Another kind of mayday

But that's enough about May Day. What I really want to dissect is mayday. It may sound the same as our spring holiday, but they are miles apart in meaning.

Mayday! is a universal distress call familiar to all who have learned how to fly a plane or maneuver a boat. Those who don't will likely recognize the word from action movies or books. Rumor has it that Hollywood has "Mayday 109" in the works, a take-off on PT-109, the World War II Navy boat captained by future president John F. Kennedy when it was sunk by a Japanese destroyer.

Again, I turned to old editions of this newspaper to learn how mayday became a distress call, and my research was rewarded. But this one is not an American story and it is rather young, at least when compared to the ancient May Day.

The distress call was created because of the growing trend of commercial air flights and the possibilities of crashes that might strand pilots and passengers in water. The year was 1923, not long after the ending of World War I. Air flight was novel and exciting, opening up new worlds of travel and exploration, although it was not as safe as we think of it today.

The Mississippi Coast didn't yet have an airport but cross-country pilots regularly flew the beachline and sometimes landed in fields for demonstrations.

A necessity of its time

Commercial flights from major cities had started several years earlier, so it's not surprising that the Herald editor published a March 1, 1923, wire story datelined London and sub-headed, "Convenient Craft to be Hurried to any Plane that May Fall in Water":

"Air trips between London and Paris are being made safer all the time, and before long passengers will almost be denied the thrill of taking a chance. Even if the airplane is forced down upon the waters of the channel, the passengers may be rescued so quickly that they will have to use their imaginations in order to interest their friends with an account of the experience when they get back home.

"Arrangements for hurrying channel craft to the aid of a plane that falls in the water have just been completed and successfully tested. As all the trans-Channel fliers are equipped with wireless telephones, the authorities have adopted a new international distress word for aircraft. It is 'May Day,' the phonetic equivalent of 'm'aidez,' the french for 'Help me.'"

And mayday was born. It became one word instead of two and broadened in rescue definition to include all pilots, be they water, air, train, etc. The advent of radios, which the 1923 news writer called "wireless telephones," made it possible.

Today's histories credit a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London with choosing the in international distress word. When Frederick Stanley Mockford was asked to come up with a word easily understood by pilots and emergency rescuers, he proposed mayday from the French word m'aidez, translated "help me."

Much of Mockford's air traffic in 1923 was between Croydon and a Paris airport, so m'aidez was a natural. Off course, it was Anglicized, and the powers that be dictated that it must be repeated three times to prevent mistaking the distress call for similar sounding phrases.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.