May Day Around the World

When I was a kid, we used to make May Day baskets from construction paper and fill them with candy and flowers and deliver them on May 1st to our neighbors by hanging them on their front door knob. I knew nothing about the history of May Day other then it was a fun celebration to take part in as a kid and it was very festive. However, it seems to have fallen out of favor over the decades.

In an article published on April 30, 2015, in NPR.org titled, A Forgotten Tradition: May Day Basket,” by Linton Weeks, NPR History Department, he writes:

Maybe there really was a time when America was more innocent.

Back when May Basket Day was a thing, perhaps.

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.

May Basket Tales

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.”

In St. Joseph, Mich., the “Herald” reported on May 6, 1886, “little folks observed May Basket Day custom in hanging pretty baskets to door knobs.”

The Taunton, Mass., “Gazette” in May 1889 told the story of a young man who got up very early and walked a mile and a half to hang a basket on his sweetheart’s door, only to find another basket from another beau already hanging there.

“With the young, in rural communities especially,” the “St. Louis Republic” reported on May 1, 1900—in archaic-speak, “it is May Basket Day—when the youthful fancy manifests its turn to thoughts of love by surreptitiously leaving baskets of spring flowers on the stoop appertaining to the home of the one adored.”

Two bold children hung May baskets on the White House front door on May Day 1925. The Indiana, Pa., “Gazette “reported that first lady Grace Coolidge found her admirers and gave them flowers she had picked.

In Dunkirk, N.Y., the “Evening Observer” observed on April 30, 1932, that young people were collecting samples from wallpaper dealers and “creating baskets of all sorts and varieties as to size, shape, and color, and will hang them on the doors of their friends at dusk on May Day.”

Writing in the Humboldt, Iowa, “Independent” in May 1976, the local extension home economist reminisced: “What a gallant occasion Mother made of May baskets. Lists were made and rewritten. It became almost as exciting as Christmas.” Her family used old milk cartons for containers and they made popcorn and Boston cremes for each basket. People in her community returned May baskets to their owners at Halloween.

Basket Cases

Here and there you can find recollections of May Basket Days past. Marci Matson, director of the historical society in Edina, Minn., writes: “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.”

She points to other reminiscences: Joan Gage inA Rolling Crone” remembers making baskets as a child in Milwaukee and leaving them for old folks in the neighborhood, just for the kindness of it.

AndOld Fashioned Livingthat Louisa May Alcott wrote about May Basket Day in New England in her 1880 children’s bookJack and Jill.

From Alcott’s story: “Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another’s arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly; such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling—it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener.”

Fade Away

Eventually, May Basket Day—like the spring flowers arranged in the baskets—began to wilt and droop. Though vestiges of the sincere ceremony still pop up on the Internet, the in-real-life event has pretty much evanesced.

Observing May Day traditions on May 1, 1963, an Associated Press reporter in Providence, R.I., wrote that there were only a “few May baskets hanging from door knobs” that year.

“Remember May Basket Day?” a syndicated columnist asked in the spring of 1963.

So what happened? Maybe the ritual receded because of a national fall from innocence. Or an increased desire for get-off-my-lawn privacy. Maybe modern innovation overwhelmed the May basket tradition: A household-hint adviser suggested “May Baskets from plastic bottles” in the Belleville, Kan., “Telescope” in 1976.

Whatever the case, Madonna Dries Christensen, a writer in Florida, is not totally sure she wants the habitual ritual to flourish again. “I harbor a fear that some major company will rediscover May Basket Day and mar its simplicity with commercial baskets, cards and trinkets,” she writes in her 2012 memoir,In Her Shoes: Step By Step.” “To ward off that calamity, please do not share this … with anyone who might be in cahoots with such a manufacturer.” (Quote source here.)

In an article published on May 5, 2020, titled, 10 Curious Facts About May Day,” by Melissa Breyer, Editorial Director at Treehugger.com, she writes:

The first of May is a contradiction as far as days of observance go. It’s a holiday suffering from multiple personality disorder; one identity dedicated to strike and protest, the other embracing all things spring and frolicsome.

In the late 19th century, leaders of the socialist Second International were fighting for an eight-hour work day and they called for a global day of protest to be held on May 1, 1890. It has lived on as an international workers’ day, and has received renewed vigor in the United States over the years. But this is a relatively new side of the date, which was celebrated as a pagan festival in pre-Christian times and peaked as a celebration in the Middle Ages. Honoring the Roman goddess of flowers, Flora, the date was also associated with other festivals, such as the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night.

Marking the beginning of spring, May Day has long been celebrated to mark vitality and fertility — which means that early incarnations of the holiday involved all kinds of raucous debauchery. Along with the frisky antics, some other traditions were born as well, some of which are listed here.

1. The Maypole Dance

May Day is probably best known now for the medieval tradition of “dancing the maypole dance,” a custom that continues to be practiced. Fair young maidens circle the decorated pole weaving together patterns of ribbons in the process. Hawthorne and lily of the valley are traditional flowers used for garland. Similar ribbon dances were performed in pre-Columbian Latin America and were later incorporated into Hispanic ritual dances.

2. Masculine and Feminine

The pole is thought by many to (not so subtly) represent the masculine, while the decorations of flowers, wreaths and ribbons are thought to symbolize the feminine. Although some scholars assert that sometimes a tree is just a tree—the pole was not a phallic symbol, but rather a nod to the sacred nature of the tree. The pole was traditionally made of maple, hawthorn or birch; the men of a community would select the tallest, straightest tree they could find, and place it in the village green.

3. Rolling in the Hay

The celebration of fertility and abundance led to couples disappearing in the fields and woods for a “roll in the hay,” so to speak—the practice of which promised abundance. In general, it was a day marked by a libidinous mood; excessive promiscuity encouraged increased fertility in general for the year to come.

4. It Was Once Banned

Persecution of May Day festivities began as early as the 1600s, and in 1640 the Church ruled against the debauchery when the British Parliament banned the traditions as immoral. A much tamer version was brought back in 1644 under the rule of Charles II.

5. Fairy Tale

Some beliefs held that May Day was the last chance for fairies to travel to the Earth.

6. Facial Treatments

Tradition dictates that washing one’s face in the dew from May Day morning beautifies the skin.

7. May Day Baskets

The giving of May Baskets has, sadly, faded since the late 20th century. Small baskets of sweets and flowers would be left anonymously on doorsteps to the delight of neighbors. (We vote for a revival.)

8. Happy Day

In Italy, May Day is regarded as the happiest day of the year, by some accounts.

9. Hawaii’s Own Celebration

Since 1928, May Day in Hawaii has been known as Lei Day, a spring celebration that embraces Hawaiian culture and in particular, the lei. The holiday song, “May Day is Lei Day in Hawai’i,” was originally a fox trot, but was later rearranged as a Hawaiian hula.

10. Distress Signals

The international distress signal, “mayday,” has nothing to do with the first of May. It derives from the French venez m’aider, meaning “come help me.” (Quote source here.)

And, one last article published on April 29, 2018, titled, 8 Interesting May Day Traditions from Around the World,” on Tandem.net (the author’s name is not mentioned) provides this information:

May is seen as a special month across the world. Winter has finally come to an end, meaning many people take the chance to celebrate the coming summer! May 1st is International Labor Day, a public holiday in many countries, where workers (and usually, workers rights) are celebrated. But May Day festivities often have their roots in older celebrations – with many taking inspiration from pagan or ancient religious traditions. Here are a few of the most quirky festivals from around the world!

1. Scotland/Ireland

Beltane–which means ‘day of fire’ in Celtic–was an ancient Celtic fire festival celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man on May 1. Bel was the god of the sun in Celtic tradition, so the festival celebrated the seasonal transition from the dark winter to the beautiful and light summer.

Ancient Celts believed that the sun was taken prisoner during the winter months, so on Beltane they would light special bonfires to welcome the sun back to its rightful place. This tradition has undergone a revival in recent years and still takes place in parts of Scotland today.

In Edinburgh, for example, they light huge bonfires on a hill above the city. Another Scottish legend from Edinburgh says that young women who climb Arthur’s Seat (a big hill overlooking the city) at sunrise on May Day and wash their faces in the morning dew will have life-long beauty!

2. Germany/Scandinavia

In Germany, Walpurgisnacht, or Hexennacht, is almost like a second Hallowe’en. Legend has it that witches would meet on this night to celebrate the coming season with bonfires and dancing. To combat the witches, local German people made as much noise as possible and lit huge bonfires to keep the evil witches and spirits at bay. Walpurgisnacht is still celebrated today across Germany and Scandinavia, with big parties, bonfires and dressing up.

The name of the holiday is said to come from St Walburga, an English nun whose feast day is on May 1. At that time in Germany, Church authorities banned pagan celebrations, and would punish anyone found to be celebrating them. In order to carry on observing Hexennacht, the local people used the excuse of celebrating St Walburga’s feast day as a way to appease the Church.

3. Russia

In Russia and other former Soviet countries, May 1 is still a very important holiday, marking the start of spring/summer and Labor Day. Workers’ rights were of hugely important significance in countries under the influence of the Soviet Union countries, and this day continues as a major holiday today. There are often marches or demonstrations on this day too against capitalist systems or just as a celebration of unions.

4. England

While the Scots and Irish celebrate with fire festivals, in England, May Day is traditionally celebrated with dancing around the Maypole. Maypoles were traditionally made from young trees which were cut down and placed in the middle of a village green with multicolored ribbons attached to the top. It was then the job of the young people in the village to each take a ribbon and skip around the outside of the pole to make various patterns with all the ribbons. Maypoles are still a key fixture on Mayday in rural villages, and are even making a comeback in more urban parts of England.

5. Italy

At the ancient festival of Calendimaggio in Assisi, people dress up in traditional dress – including swords and shields for the men – and there are a variety of specific activities to participate in. These include horse riding, crossbow-shooting competitions and the election of a Madonna Primavera (Queen of Spring). There are also singing competitions, day and night processions, feasts and flower dances to welcome the new spring and the renewed joy of life.

6. Hawaii

Lei are traditional Hawaiian flower necklaces, and are worn by practically everyone on the Hawaiian islands on May 1, the official Lei Day! They are a symbol of the aloha spirit in Hawaii. Each island has a different style of Lei. On Lei Day there are lei making demonstrations, concerts, food and drink stalls and lots of celebrations.

7. Bulgaria

The Bulgarian festival Irminden stems from the legend in Bulgaria that snakes come out of their burrows every year on March 25, but that their king and leader comes out on May 1. So, anyone who works in the fields is likely to get bitten on this day! All workers take May Day free in Bulgaria as to avoid any such bites. There are bonfires to keep the snakes away and lots of celebrations to welcome in the spring and summer.

8. France

Demonstrations and parades have been a common Labor Day fixture in France since 1890. However, an older tradition remains alongside them. It is customary to give the Lily of the Valley flower to friends or family members. This actually dates back to 1561, when Charles IX presented Lily of the Valley to all ladies present at his court. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with a May Day poem posted by Jancalligrapher at this link:

Do you remember back in childhood
How we loved the first of May?
When we hung flower-filled baskets
On doorknobs, then ran away?

Do you remember how the sweetest basket
Was for the one we loved the best,
And in it went the blossoms
That were fairer then the rest?

Such a beautiful and gracious custom
Somehow lost along the way.

But the memories still linger . . . 

As we welcome in . . .

The May . . . .

YouTube Video: “May Day Explained | Behind The Lore | Myth Stories”:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here