May 1, or May Day, is an ancient spring festival in the northern hemisphere, and is usually a public holiday. It is related to the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night. May Day falls exactly half a year from November 1, another cross-quarter day, and it has traditionally been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations.
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice was Midsummer.
As Europe became Christianized, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and either changed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were merged with or replaced by new Christian holidays as with Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saint's Day. In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary's month, and in these circles May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this connection, in works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary's head will often be adorned with flowers in a May crowning.
May blossom, the flower of the May tree May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. May Day is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. A more secular version of May Day continues to be observed in Europe and, in this form, may be best known for its tradition of dancing the maypole dance and crowning of the Queen of the May.
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Mayday, as an emergency procedure word, is used internationally as a distress signal in radio communications. It derives from the French venez m'aider, meaning 'come help me'.