Shockingly (to me, anyway) not everyone grew up with this tradition and my online research tells me that the practice is on the wane. May baskets were a big part of my childhood -- we even made our own little baskets in school. One year, we wove strips of construction paper to make a basket; other years we decorated those green plastic strawberry baskets or tin cans.
Joan Gage remembered May baskets from her Edina childhood in the 1940s and 50s, and she continued the spring-time ritual with her children. "Some sixty years ago, when I was a little girl in (first) Milwaukee, Wisconsin and then in Edina, Minnesota, on the first of May we would make May baskets out of construction paper and fill them with whatever flowers we could find in the garden or growing wild," she writes on her blog, A Rolling Crone. "We would hang the baskets on the doorknobs of neighbors—especially old people—ring the door bell, then run away with great hilarity and peek out as the elderly person found the little bouquets on their door."
The practice has a long history, stemming from the European pagan festival of spring, Beltane. The more raucous elements were toned down after the continent became Christianized, but the May pole dance and May baskets survived in a more G-rated form.
As the blog Old Fashioned Living describes it: Handing out May Day baskets is a charming and gentle activity for children and adults. It's a tradition that Louisa May Alcott wrote of in "Jack and Jill" (Chapter 18): "The job now in hand was May baskets, for it was the custom of the children to hang them on the doors of their friends the night before May-day; and the girls had agreed to supply baskets if the boys would hunt for flowers, much the harder task of the two. Jill had more leisure as well as taste and skill than the other girls, so she amused herself with making a goodly store of pretty baskets of all shapes, sizes, and colors, quite confident that they would be filled, though not a flower had shown its head except a few hardy dandelions, and here and there a small cluster of saxifrage." (a type of herb called Greater Burnet).
I like the May basket tradition for a number of reasons:
- Giving is anonymous. Reciprocity is not expected. You leave the basket on the doorknob or doorstep, ring the doorbell and run. It's the nice version of "Ding Dong Ditch."
- Children give to grownups, instead of the other way around. On almost every other holiday, only the child receives gifts; they don't get to experience the true joy of unselfish giving. My kids love giving the baskets to the neighbors as much as they enjoy getting candy from them on Halloween. The big part of the excitement has been trying to sneak around undetected.
- It doesn't take much to brighten someone's day. One year, we (okay, I) forgot to get anything for May Day but the neighbors were just as happy with our random assortment of goodies from throughout our house, like leftover sparklers from the Fourth of July, an extra packet of colorful paper napkins, lilacs from our back yard, packs of gum, etc.
- May baskets signal spring in 2012 just as much as they did in 1812.
For more about May Days past, take a look at the Minnesota Historical Society'sonline photo database. If you can share stories or photos of Edina May Day celebrations, please contact me or comment here.
Happy May Day!