When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things about spring was May Day. It was a sweet and quiet event, celebrated at school and by just a handful of children on our block. My mother explained it only as a celebration of spring and a way to let people know we cared about them.
We made little baskets by rolling cones of pretty pastel-colored construction paper. Then we stapled a strip of paper on either side of the cone opening, to make a handle. If Mom had leftover scraps of lace or doilies, we cut pieces of the lacy work and glued them around the tops of the cone. Then she instructed us to go outside and pick some flowers. Our yard always had some kind of flowers growing. We picked dandelions, violets, tulips, and my two most favorite flowers of all… lilacs and lily of the valley.
We brought our little bouquets back to the house, where mom trimmed the stems and wrapped them in a damp paper towel. She then applied another layer of wrap such as tin foil or wax paper around the stems and held everything together with a rubber band. We made several little bouquets and stuffed them into the paper cone baskets. Then as a special extra something, we dropped in some sweet little hard candies.
There was even one year when we must not have had construction paper in the house, so we used soup cans. We washed the cans, removed the labels, and Dad punched holes on either side of the can opening. Then we threaded twine through the holes and tied knots to make a handle. Mom attached ribbon bows on the corner of the cans to add some color then, we filled them with the usual bouquets.
The next part of the project was for us kids to disperse into the neighborhood, sneak up on people’s porches, hang the flower baskets on every doorknob, then ring doorbells and run. Often times we could get well away from a door before it was opened, but sometimes it was necessary to hide in the nearest bush. Our objective was to deliver a surprise and not be caught doing it.
I remember a few of the elderly ladies, who surely knew we were near, opening their doors and loudly saying, “Oh how beautiful! Now, where did these come from?” We always felt like we’d gotten away with a great caper. Still, there was also such deep satisfaction in giving our elderly friends something special and letting them know they were seen and loved. This is something I’m sure more and more elderly would love to experience in this day and age. And it’s something we should be teaching our children– honoring, respecting, and giving back to those who are now shut in and isolated.
Another May Day custom we practiced was in elementary school during “P.E.” (physical education), now called gym class. We danced around a Maypole. I don’t recall much orientation to the tradition of Maypole dancing, just that we circled around a pole with colorful streamers attached to the top of the Maypole. Each of us held streamers and circled this way and that as the streamers twisted in our hands. We would raise our streamers and go over and under a person to our left or right. The colorful streamers danced about in kaleidoscopic fashion from our movements: it was a cool thing. For those who don’t understand what I’m talking about, I guess I would liken it to how kids play in group parachute activities in preschools and elementary schools today. The parachute’s colors and movements make them happy, as they learn to move together as a team and see what magical things their coordinated efforts can make happen.
May Day was first practiced in ancient Rome to herald the spring season, new crops, fertility, and love. The event would last the entire month, and there were lavish celebrations and ritual observances to the gods. The May celebrations got a little out of hand at one point, focused too much on the fertility aspect. So, the holiday was squelched for a while. Eventually, it became more controlled. The tradition spread to countries the world over – with many cultural variations and meanings for May Day developing over time.
May Day is celebrated on May 1st, which is significant because that date marks the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.
May Day celebrations are enjoyed in many countries. But there has been a decline in recognition of the holiday in America since the 1970s. Today, some elementary schools continue to teach children about the custom. Still, sadly the rest of the adult world seems to be dismissive of it.
It is a custom that is beautiful, and I wish it would be revived. But I fear that here in America, we have forgotten to celebrate the sweetest and purest things, like flowers, and all things that grow –including our growing selves. Our holidays tend now to be about giving expensive gifts, gorging on foods, or watching sports. One can only wonder what our world might look like if we shared more flowers, more sweetness, more giving, more gratitude, and more crumbs of kindness.