Lazy Saturday Reads: May Baskets and Maypole Dances

St. George's Kermis with the dance around the maypole, Peter Bruegel

St. George’s Kermis with the dance around the maypole, Peter Brueghel

Good Morning!!

May Day Memories

It’s not May Day anymore, but I’m making it the theme of my post today anyway. Yesterday, Delphyne posted an article on Facebook that brought back memories of May Day when I was a child.

New England Historical Society: How To Make a Maine May Basket.

An old New England tradition that perhaps deserves reviving is the giving of May baskets on May Day. It was popular among children, especially in northern New England, during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

Children made small homemade baskets or used available ones. They filled them with treats: candy, cookies, flowers. Then they’d hang them on the doorknob or leave them on the doorstep of a friend, a sweetheart or a favorite relative. The custom was to knock, yell “May Basket” and then run. If the recipient caught the giver, he or she was entitled to a kiss.

May baskets

NPR also ran a story on May baskets. A Forgotten Tradition: May Basket Day.

The curious custom — still practiced in discrete pockets of the country — went something like this: As the month of April rolled to an end, people would begin gathering flowers and candies and other goodies to put in May baskets to hang on the doors of friends, neighbors and loved ones on May 1.

In some communities, hanging a May basket on someone’s door was a chance to express romantic interest. If a basket-hanger was espied by the recipient, the recipient would give chase and try to steal a kiss from the basket-hanger.

Perhaps considered quaint now, in decades past May Basket Day — like the ancient act of dancing around the maypole — was a widespread rite of spring in the United States.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, May Basket Day celebrations took place all across the nation:

A reporter in the Sterling, Ill., Gazette in 1871 explained the seasonal ritual this way: “A May-basket is — well, I hardly know how to describe it; but ’tis something to be hung on a door. Made of paper generally, it contains almost anything, by way of small presents you have in mind to put in it, together with your respects, best wishes — love, perhaps. It is hung after dark at the door of anybody the hanger fancies. — Which done, the said hanger knocks and scampers.”

The writer went on to say, in the spirit of the times, that if a boy hangs a May basket on a girl’s door and the girl catches him, “it’s a great disgrace.” If a girl is the hanger, “it disgraces the boy again not to catch her.”

May basket

When I was a small child, we lived in Lawrence, Kansas for five years while my dad worked toward his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. I have wonderful memories of making May baskets when we lived there.

We would take a piece of colored construction paper and roll it into a cone shape, and tape or staple it. Then we would put candy in the cone and decorate it with flowers we found outdoors. I particularly remember picking violets and tucking them into the sides of the cone. Then we hung the May baskets on the doorknobs of friends and relatives (my uncle was getting a law degree at KU at the time and lived in our neighborhood). The tradition was that you rang the person’s doorbell and then ran away or hid somewhere to see their reaction. It was so much fun.

When we moved to Athens,Ohio, we tried to continue the May basket tradition, but no one there had heard of it. I don’t know if this was something passed down from my grandparents or what. My mother’s father was born in Maine, and my father’s mother came from Massachusetts.

Of course we still celebrated May Day in Catholic school. May 1 is designated as a day to celebrate the “Virgin Mary,” and May is “Mary’s month.” One of the girls in the school was chosen as the May queen. I don’t recall if there was a May king. The May queen sat on a raised platform holding flowers while the rest of us danced around a Maypole holding colored streamers.

Maypole dance, Central Park, NY, 1905

Maypole dance, Central Park, NY, 1905

It’s so interesting to think back on those days now that I know the church adapted all the pagan holidays and turned them into Christian celebrations. May 1 was a Celtic holiday called Beltane, and in Germany it was known as Walpurgisnacht. Here’s some history of May Day from School of the Seasons:

Like Candlemas, Lammas and Halloween, May Day is one of the corner days which fall between the solar festivals of the year (the equinoxes and solstices). The ancient Celts called this holiday Beltane and began celebrating at sunset on April 30th. It marked the beginning of summer, time to move with the flocks up to the summer pastures….

In Germany, April 30th is Walpurgisnacht, the night when it was believed that witches flew on their brooms to mountaintop gatherings where they danced all night around bonfires. This night is named after St Walpurga, who came from England in the 8th century to become the abbess of a German monastery. It seems a little hard to believe that this holy woman would have her name associated with such licentious rites until you consider that early monasteries evolved from pagan colleges of priests and priestesses. On this night, St. Walpurga and her followers went up into the mountains to perform sacred rituals.

Like Halloween, this is a night when witches, fairies and ghosts wander freely. The veil between the worlds is thin. The Queen of the Fairies rides out on a snow-white horse, looking for mortals to lure away to Fairyland for seven years. Folklore says that if you sit beneath a tree on this night, you will see Her or hear the sound of Her horse’s bells as She rides by. If you hide your face, She will pass you by but if you look at Her, She may choose you.

Halloween is a festival of death, a time for letting go and mourning. May Day, on the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year, is about life, about falling in love and frolicking in the woods. Death is an ending but also a beginning. Falling in love is a beginning which is also a death. The Goddess who manifests herself at May Day calls you out of yourself and you may never return, at least to the same world you knew.


In honor of May Day and the approach of summer, I’ve decorated this post with photos of May baskets and Maypole dancers.

Now some news, links only.

Baltimore updates

Joseph Cannon, May 1, 2015: The day we said NO MORE COVER-UPS.

The Independent UK, The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint.

Think Progress, Man Who Filmed Freddie Gray Reportedly Arrested Under Suspicious Circumstances

The Baltimore Sun, FOP calls on prosecutor to recuse herself, defends officers.

Reuters, Baltimore heads into weekend of rallies after officers charged.

National Journal, Why Marilyn Mosby’s Comments on Freddie Gray Matter.

The Daily Beast, Experts: Experts: You Can’t Break Your Own Spine Like Freddie Gray.

The Washington Post, A look at the six Baltimore police officers charged in the Gray case.

The New York Times, Marilyn Mosby, Prosecutor in Freddie Gray Case, Takes a Stand and Calms a Troubled City.

TPM Cafe, How A 1898 Race Riot Can Help Us Make Sense of Baltimore.


Presidential Politics

Politico, How Rand Paul blew it on Baltimore.

Reuters, On Clinton’s age, Republican rivals imply — but never say — she’s old.

The Washington Post, Bernie Sanders raises $1.5 million in 24 hours, says his campaign.

FiveThirtyEight, Chris Christie’s Access Lanes To The GOP Nomination Are Closed.

New York Times editorial, Governor Christie’s People.

Chris Cillizza, Two minutes that show Mike Huckabee’s great promise as a presidential candidate.

Nepal Earthquake

CNN, Teenager pulled alive from rubble on Day 6.

The Guardian, Nepal customs holding up relief efforts, says United Nations.

The New York Times, Nepal’s Fast Urbanization and Lax Enforcement Add to Quake’s Toll.

The New York Times, Foreign Diplomats Try to Track Down the Missing in Nepal.

May pole dance

Other News

New York Times, Ben E. King, Soulful Singer of Stand By Me, Dies at 76.

CNN, Ben E. King: Voice like a pool of honey beneath a crispy surface.

The Root, R&B Legend Ben E. King Dies at 76.

Reuters, It’s a girl – Britain’s Duchess Kate gives birth, both well, palace says

Beat The Press, David Brooks and the Federal Government’s $14,000 Per Year Per Poor Person

Christian Science Monitor, There may be a volcano erupting off the coast of Oregon: Is it a threat? (+video).

What stories are you following today? Please share your thoughts and links in the comment thread and have a nice weekend!

34 Comments on “Lazy Saturday Reads: May Baskets and Maypole Dances”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    My favorite Ben E. King song. What a voice!

  2. In the movie Picnic wasn’t Kim Novak chosen as “May Queen” or maybe I have it wrong.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Pat Johnson says:

    Chris Christie must be somewhat mollified today. The state prosecutor announced two indictments on a late Friday “news dump” day that was far out covered by the Baltimore indictments plus this morning’s headlines featured the birth of the royal baby!

    Christie has thus far “exonerated” himself which in itself is “interesting”. How this big loudmouth had no knowledge of what was transpiring via his staff is ludicrous. Let’s hope this ends his arrogant WH intentions as these first three co conspirators scramble to clear their own names.

    Are we about to watch the end of reckless police officers who treat people of color as so much “baggage”? Let’s hope that this current incident strikes fear into those officers who feel they have the right to abuse and murder “in the name of the law” without having to face any consequences.

    • RalphB says:

      Unfortunately, I think it will take more than one group of cops being prosecuted, and convicted, for the rest to pay serious attention to their own peril. They’ve been getting away with it for too long now.

  4. RalphB says:

    Chris Cillizza on Huckabee only proves one thing. Cillizza is a brainless bag of meat.

  5. RalphB says:

    Gail Collins spoke with Bernie Sanders and this is the very funny outcome.

    NYT: Bernie Sanders Yells His Mind

    Question: Sanders self-identifies as a “democratic socialist.” Aren’t people going to think that’s a little extreme?

    Answer: This week, the governor of Texas announced he was putting a special watch on U.S. military exercises this summer, due to public speculation that the soldiers might take over the state and confiscate everyone’s guns. Also, the Idaho Legislature recently killed a bill that would have provided federal aid in tracking down deadbeat dads, due to concern that it might involve the use of Shariah law. I do not want to hear you calling Bernie Sanders an extremist.

  6. roofingbird says:

    BB, the Oregon volcano link won’t load. It goes to: “You are not allowed to edit this item”. It appears to be on a WP edit page.

  7. RalphB says:

  8. RalphB says:

    There is a really good analysis of the Democratic primary electorate in this story.

    NYT Upshit: The Problem for Bernie Sanders: The Narrow Lane to Hillary Clinton’s Left

    The presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont and self-described socialist who will most likely champion the liberal cause, won’t change that fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton is poised to win the Democratic nomination without a serious contest.

    This is mainly because of Mr. Sanders’s own weaknesses as a candidate and Mrs. Clinton’s strengths. But there is another, strangely simple reason Mrs. Clinton will have an easy road to the nomination: The left wing of the Democratic Party just isn’t big enough to support a challenge to the left of a mainstream liberal Democrat like Mrs. Clinton.

  9. dakinikat says:

    Here’s something that gave me a huge belly laugh! Jibbers! The one true God!

  10. RalphB says:

    Update on the Derby …

    The Onion: Pinwheeling, Out-Of-Control Horse Crashes Into Kentucky Derby Stands

    LOUISVILLE, KY—In one of the biggest tragedies to ever befall the 141-year-old event, more than a dozen spectators were reportedly injured and the Kentucky Derby was temporarily delayed Saturday after a pinwheeling, out-of-control horse crashed into the stands. “They were entering the final turn when Keen Ice spun out and hit the wall, sending him airborne and spiraling uncontrollably at full speed into the first few rows of the crowd,” Derby announcer Travis Stone told reporters, adding that paramedics immediately rushed to attend to onlookers struck by debris and extract jockey Kent Desormeaux from the wreckage. “You could see from the way Keen Ice was wildly careening around the top of the stretch that it wasn’t going to end well, and once he made contact with the wall, it was carnage. You try to keep fans safe, but you can’t always prevent these kinds of freak accidents, especially a horse tumbling end-over-end into the crowd like that. It was truly horrifying.” At press time, Derby officials confirmed that, following cleanup of the seven-horse pileup caused by Keen Ice’s crash, the pace horse would be brought out and the race would be finished under the yellow caution flag.

  11. bostonboomer says:

    WATCH: Unprovoked Baltimore cop pepper sprays passive protester wearing ‘F*ck the police’ t-shirt. Filmed by AP. After pepper-spraying the man in the face, police drag him to the ground by his hair and then several cops surround him and drag him from the street.