I’m a Margaret Atwood fan and an Elizabeth Moss fan, so although it is now safe to freely move about our small city of Annapolis, at night I’ve been watching season four of The Handmaid’s Tale. Seasons 1, 2, and 3 on the streaming service Hulu, got me through the tense months that led up to a divisive U.S. Presidential election and the dark winter that followed. Now the guilty pleasure continues as June Osborne joins up with the underground network that seeks to overthrow Gilead, known as Mayday.
Yesterday was May first, celebrated in Annapolis, Maryland with the display of May Baskets. A European holiday that celebrates the return of spring, a traditional May Day celebration from medieval times includes the gathering of wildflowers and the creation of a garland wreath to set atop the head of a May king and queen. The village celebrates with a dance around the Maypole, a bonfire, and feast in expectation of a good harvest.
In Annapolis, in non-pandemic times the local garden club awards blue ribbons to the best baskets and a celebratory tea is held to toast the winners. The winning baskets use Maryland garden foliage and flowers. Each year I walk downtown to admire all the beautiful arrangements and post photographs on social media of my favorites.
May Day and planting is all about fertility. How ironic then that the revolutionaries in Gilead, a country plagued by infertile men and women who steal other citizen’s children, would choose Mayday as their code name. Or maybe the screen writers of The Handmaid’s Tale had this in mind when they chose the name Mayday for the network of individuals attempting to dismantle the government.
On the other hand, Mayday also is an emergency alert used by radio operators, primarily in connection with planes and ships. “Mayday mayday mayday,” the pilot says into his microphone. The person on the receiver knows immediately the plane is in trouble. The fictional nation of Gilead is certainly in trouble as it seeks to tear apart human connections, take away all personal rights, and transform a former democracy into an oligarchy.
The first time the international Mayday distress call was used was in 1923. Frederick Stanley Mockford, officer-in-charge of radio communication at London’s Croydon Airport was asked to think of a word that could be used to immediately signal distress. As the majority of air traffic was between London and Paris, he decided to coin a word that would be easily understood by both English speakers and French speakers. M’aidez or m’aider mean help me or come and help me. M’aidez and Mayday sound similar. To signal for help, the word Mayday must be repeated three times in rapid succession.
There is also another May Day. A May Day celebrating worker’s rights. May Day is what International Worker’s Day, held on May first each year, is called in many countries around the world. In the United States it was on the first of May in 1886 that workers organized by the American Federation of Labor began a strike requesting an eight hour work day. Several days of strikes and rallies culminated into a demonstration that took place on May 4th in Chicago. Initially peaceful, a bomb blast and gunfire quickly turned into what has become known as the Haymarket Affair. At least eight people died. While the rights of workers continue to be celebrated by other nations in May, U.S. President Grover Cleveland did not want the association with the Hay Market bombing, so American Labor Day is celebrated the first Monday in September.
Certainly the rights of the underclass in The Handmaid’s Tale are grossly disregarded. Anyone who attempts to speak out is immediately punished. A May Day demonstration to demand fair and equitable work conditions in Gilead would likely be received with gunfire and mass hangings. The term Mayday for the insurgents seems by this definition to be well chosen.
Two words or one, used in several different ways can have multiple meanings. It’s important to pay attention to the world around us. A beautiful spring day, a desperate call for help, a celebration of worker’s rights or a tribute to mother earth, it’s all about context. So for now I’ll smell the May flowers and be grateful that I’m safe and free. Each moment is precious.