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May Day…One Phrase with Many Different Meanings

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What does May 1, May Day, mean to your students? For some it is a day to celebrate. For others it is a day to commemorate. Some may not have any associations with the date. The words “May Day” can also mean a warning of danger or a reminder to be aware that something is coming and to prepare.

Many people celebrate spring on May 1 with dancing, feasting, and selecting a May Queen. Children dance around a May Pole, wrapping it in ribbons and garlands. In some places people leave baskets of treats on the doorsteps of friends. Jennifer Cutting of the Library’s American Folklife Center discusses some of the different way to celebrate May Day in a webcast. The Library’s Picture This blog featured images from May Day celebrations. Ask students what they would include in a May Day celebration.

Rehearsing the maypole dance for May Day, health day excercises [sic]. Gees Bend, Alabama. Marion Wolcott Post, 1939

Comparison of Image of Morris Dancer with Image of Jennifer Cutting

Most of us in the United States celebrate Labor Day and the importance of the nation’s workforce on the first Monday in September. However, many people around the world mark International Workers’ Day, May Day, on May 1 with parades, marches and demonstrations in support of workers’ rights. Today in History and the Library’s In Custodia Legis blog have information on the history of International Workers Day and its connections to the Haymarket affair and the implementation of the eight hour workday.

Some of your students may be aware of these two celebrations of May Day, but even more will be aware of using the phrase “May Day” to indicate that an emergency is taking place. Students may wonder why the term “May Day” is used in emergencies and might be surprised to discover that this distress call came out of the needs of the then-expanding aircraft industry. Ask students what other terms are used to indicate an emergency and why Mayday might have been selected. After students have speculated, share the articles from the Evening Star and Cordova Daily Times with them. Ask them what terms they might have used for identify an emergency instead of May Day.

May Day 1916. Bain News Service

Pass It On Poster

In libraries and archives, “May Day,” reminds professionals of the importance of protecting the collections in their care during times of emergency. It is also a day to remember about the care and preservation of fragile materials to ensure that those materials are available for researchers in the future. Share the information about ways to preserve books in libraries found in on the Library’s Preservation Division website. May 1 is a good day to look at important documents in our homes or businesses. Encourage students to think about materials they may have at home that might be in danger if there is an emergency and what they might do to protect them.

Ask students to think about the different uses of the term “May Day.” Why is this phrase used in so many different ways? Share their responses in the comments.


  1. A song that comes to mind is “The Merry Merry Month of May” by Stephen Foster. It was originally distributed in a monthly periodical for schools in 1862, and its harmonies still ring true today!

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