Lazy Saturday Reads: May Baskets and Maypole DancesPosted: May 2, 2015
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The Baltimore Sun, FOP calls on prosecutor to recuse herself, defends officers.
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.
Politico, How Rand Paul blew it on Baltimore.
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.
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.
New York Times, Ben E. King, Soulful Singer of Stand By Me, Dies at 76.
The Root, R&B Legend Ben E. King Dies at 76.