May Basket Day has become a forgotten tradition

By: 

Lorna Marquardt, Leader Columnist

In a few days, it will be the first of May. In some parts of the world, May Day is a traditional spring holiday, a day that signals rebirth and new beginnings.

Unfortunately, May Basket Day is a tradition that has become lost over time. Back in simpler times, people rang in the first of May with a particularly charming and delightful tradition. People would take all the flowers they gathered at the end of April’s showers, arrange them in a homemade basket, along with small gifts and candies, and then hang them on the doors of friends and neighbors as a means of friendship and welcoming them into warmer weather.

It was also a way for young love to blossom. Boys would hang baskets on the doorknobs of girls they liked. They would knock on the door and quickly run away. If the girl caught the boy leaving the basket, she would chase him down in an effort to steal a kiss. Girls hung baskets on their favorite beau’s door, too.

Louisa May Alcott described May Day in her popular children’s book “Jack and Jill.” She wrote: “Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing around corners, or girls ran into one another’s arms as they crept up and down steps; such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling-it was almost a pity that May Day did not come oftener.”

Back in the ’50s when I was a young girl, my friends and I always made May baskets. We didn’t have much money, but we were creative and used things we had to construct the baskets. I can remember making them with construction paper, ends of leftover wallpaper and cartons we cut to size. We made handles out of pipe cleaners and ribbon. Sometimes we decorated them with paper doilies our mothers gave us.

Filling them was fun. My friends and I often went into our woods to look for wild spring flowers. If we couldn’t find enough, we drew flowers or found pictures of flowers, cut them out and put them in the baskets. We would pool our money and buy bags of those little colorful mints, too. Sometimes we popped corn. I remember writing little notes and poems to attach to the baskets.

We carefully counted our baskets and then decided who would be the recipients. I always made sure my mother received one with a special message. Mostly, we gave them to people in our neighborhood; many of them were elderly (or so they seemed to me back then). We would either hang a basket on their doorknob or we would put it in front of their door. We would knock on the door and quickly run away. I must admit, there was a pretty cute neighborhood boy on my list. I usually put cinnamon candy hearts in his.

May Day marks the halfway point between the first day of spring and the summer solstice. May Day dates back to the days of the Romans and involved many pagan rituals and ancient customs, which were slowly phased out with the arrival of Christianity.

Festivals, dances and rituals related to agriculture and fertility were practiced by many Germanic and European countries. May Day also commemorates the struggle for fair labor practices and the Haymarket Affair of 1886.

Roman Catholics celebrate May as Mary’s month, and May Day is a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

May Day is also recognized in some countries as International Worker’s Day or Labour Day. It commemorates workers’ rights and the labor movement. One popular cause this day commemorates is the eight-hour workday.

In France, it is customary to give a sweet-smelling flower called the spring lily of the valley on May 1. The tradition started in 1561 when King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm.

I guess I am a traditionalist at heart. I love learning the history of customs and traditions. It makes me sad to see some of the things I looked forward to as a child are becoming lost or forgotten. Although it’s not as popular today, I would like to believe there are still kids making May baskets to hang on doorknobs!

April showers bring May flowers. And what do May flowers bring? Pilgrims.

Happy May Day!

Answer to last week’s question: In July 1942 the Legion post and auxiliary collected old phonograph records. The records were sent to Army camps and USO clubhouses for entertainment for servicemen.

This week’s question: On Feb. 3, 1940, Shawano hosted 10,000 visitors for what event?

Lorna Marquardt is a former mayor of Shawano.