Thursday, May 1, 2014

Happy May Day (May 1, 2014) -- May Baskets Reprised. . .

The following is a reprise of a post from May 1, 2013 about an all but lost May Day tradition. 

In the minds of many people today (perhaps especially Baby Boomers and their parents), the 1st of May has come to be more associated with images of the huge military parades of the former Soviet Union through Moscow's Red Square -- and with International Workers' Day celebrating the international labor movement in more than 80 countries -- than with the ancient roots of the day as a  festival signaling the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the rebirth, renewal, romance and reproduction associated with the warm growing season.

Many northern cultures around the world have festivities and traditions related to early May and the marking of the beginning of summer.  The celebrations and traditions go back millennia to pagan holidays such as the Celtic Beltrane, but they are also expressed in rites and traditions such as Morris dancing, the Maypole and the crowning of a May Queen.  For more about the variety of May Day celebrations and traditions, go here

In the United States, May Day traditions and celebrations have fallen into disfavor among many groups because of associations with the May Day parades of the USSR and/or association with perceptions of socialism and unions.  But, there was a time when the tradition of May Day baskets was widely practiced in America and the tradition survives in some areas of the country today.  The tradition most widely followed was the making of baskets to be filled with flowers (usually by children), which were then delivered to friends and neighbors -- especially adults and the elderly -- through a ding-dong-ditch method.  Ding-dong-ditch involved hanging the basket on the front doorknob, ringing the doorbell (or delivering a loud knock) and then running away quickly before being discovered or caught.  In the more romantic version of this tradition among young people, the recipient of the basket tried to catch the messenger and, if successful, a kiss could be exchanged.

Back in 1849 New England the tradition of May Day baskets was apparently widely known and seems to have been part of a rather staid courting tradition that might or might not have included such public displays of affection as kissing among the young participants.  Below is a nice example of the use of May Day baskets in young flirting or courting traditions in the early part of the 19th Century.  It is from my 2x great grandmother, Martha Amanda Shearman, to her future husband and my 2x great grandfather, Mason Freeman, on May 1st, 1849.  

Martha Shearman's May Day Basket note to Mason Freeman, her future husband.
The trasncription of Martha's note is as follows . . .

          Friend Mason

       This Basket Please except [sic] and flowers as a token of highest esteem from one that is your friend.  I know not in what light it may be considered or how it may be received but if it is acceptable please return it in your possetion [sic] as a token of acceptance and remember that she who hangs it wishes you health happiness and every other blessing which earth can afford and now friend I must bid you good night and as often as you look upon this basket cast one thought upon her who hangs it upon your door.
                                              May 1st 1849
              To Mr. Mason Freeman

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Photograph of the original note and envelope in the collection of the author.
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Copyright 2013, 2014,  John D. Tew
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  1. In France on the first of May the boys would leave a small tree in front of the home where there was a girl old enough to be married (usually 15 and over). My sister and I would look to see, if (1) we got a tree and (2) what kind of tree was left in front of our house. If the boys didn't like you for one reason or another, if you were a spinster, they would leave a dead tree or one with thorns. It could be a little cruel, but it was the tradition as it was still happening in the 1960's in my little village of France. Annick

  2. Annick: Thank you for that interesting comment! It expands on the May Day traditions with which I am familiar. Very interesting that it was still going on in the '60s. The May basket traidion had died out in most areas of the U.S. by the '60s.