When Was the First Mayday?

by Nancy Sherer

A modern misconception is that calendars keep track of holidays, but the nature of holidays and calendars is quite the opposite. Every ‘holiday’ falls at a certain point in either the solar or lunar year. Holidays like Halloween mark the coming of winter. Easter marks the end of winter fasting. May Day celebrations traditionally fell halfway between spring equinox and summer solstice. Like Halloween, February’s ghost festivals and the more obscure holiday around the end of July, May Day marks an interval between major solar events.

It is one of the more fun festivals, however.

Jane Harrison, at the turn of the last century, gave us a window into the meaning of the earliest Attic religious artifacts, and it is easy to see that some form of May Day festivals have been celebrated since the dawn of history. Any earlier evidence, it seemed to me, must have disappeared with the flowers themselves. As it turns out, petals disintegrate, but pollen is found in the most intriguing places.

About 40,000 years ago European Homo sapiens lived in caves as the glaciers of the ice age advanced and receded across the continent. Much paleolithic art and artifacts have been found, protected inside these caves. Notably, there was a reindeer antler that had been intricately carved in a plant motif instead of animal shapes or pornography. Scientists have designated this along with other specific antler carvings as ceremonial in nature. This indicates that cavemen in some terms connected flora with magic.

But there is a more direct link to flowers and ceremony than that. It is from the same general time frame as Paleolithic art, but it is from farther south and involves a different species.

Our cousin the Neanderthal used ritual magic in connection with hunting cave bears. We speculate that this hunting took place in the winter when the bear would have been groggy with hibernation. Neanderthals, who lived about 40,000 years ago, also carefully buried their dead. Usually some possessions like flints or hammers were buried with the carefully-positioned corpse indicating hopes for supernatural existence.

Then, in 1968 in Northern Africa archeologists found pollen along with pine boughs in a Neanderthal grave. The flowers are considered by scientists as proof that this had been a ritual burial.

Flowers had an emotional, and perhaps magical, effect on Neanderthals or they would not have been used in burials. But Neanderthals probably did not celebrate May Day. There is no indication that they had any concept of marking time.

Our Paleolithic ancestors might have. In addition to carved symbols that were used to relay information, these cave dwellers ticked off notches on sticks and rocks, but we don’t know what was being counted. So far, only an oblong mammoth ivory panel found in far off Mal’ta, Siberia has been identified as a calendar. This panel is dated at 24,000 B.C.E..

The flowers of spring have always been a joyous, hopeful omen to our hungry, winter-starved ancestors. But May Day always comes at a specific time of year, not any random time when flowers bloom. This festival is assigned the day that is half way between spring equinox and summer solstice.

Which leaves me with an important question: Did people in Paleolithic time period have a calendar? Although textbooks cite Sumer as the site of the first written language, we have paleolithic artifacts that clearly use a form of symbolic alphabet to convey information. We have evidence that those cave dwellers were counting something.

Between the mammoth ivory calendar of 24,000 B.C.E. and 9000 B.C.E., the first solar calendar was understood. Before the henges of England were erected, circa 9000 B.C.E. the people who designed them had to know that the sun could be sighted at a certain place on a certain day.

Sometime after that flowered Neanderthal grave and sometime before the first henge, was the first observed May Day. Whether or not it was celebrated with dancing and flowers doesn’t matter. Its time as mid-point between equinox and solstice makes it a holiday by definition.

I prefer to believe even our paleolithic ancestors were heartened at evidence of the coming warm season and used the holiday as an opportunity to dance and gather flowers.

Nancy Sherer