Happy “May Day” Everyone! (Does Anyone Celebrate It Anymore?)

Happy “May Day” Everyone! (Does Anyone Celebrate It Anymore?) May 1, 2013

Watch for my next post…best books about the Trinity.

However, in honor of this majestic holiday, I declare an interlude for remembrance and renewed celebration.

Does anyone else remember “May Day?”

When I was a kid, it was a sort of holiday. Anyway, we observed it at my schools (elementary and junior high) and home.

May 1 was, of course (still is to some neo-pagans), a Spring fertility festival in pre-Christian Europe. In many European towns (especially Germanic) you can still see a “May pole” in the center of the town. Young ladies (mostly) danced around it on May Day (May 1). I don’t know if they do that anymore. It was, of course, originally a phallic symbol, something very few people remember.

When I was a kid, May 1 was “Government Day” at school. We all marched outside (often in the snow because this was in the upper Midwest), sang patriotic songs while the school band played and pledged allegiance to the U.S. flag. Then the curriculum for the day (especially during an “assembly”) was about our American way of life and how much better it is than…especially those in communist countries.

Of course, May 1 was “International Workers Day” and a big holiday in communist countries. So our school celebrations were directly contrary, planned to oppose, that observance of the day. We often heard talks or watched films about how terrible communism is.

At home…my brother and I dreaded, absolutely dreaded (!) May 1. Our stepmother made us help her create “May baskets” (dainty little woven baskets with brightly colored ribbons on them filled with candy and other “goodies”). Then she drove us around the neighborhood to especially elderly people’s homes. She would park a block away from the target house and we were ordered to jump out of the car, creep up to the front porch of the house, ring the doorbell, put down a May basket and yell “May Day!” and run back to the car before being seen.

Really. I kid you not.

Needless to say, we resisted this practice as soon as we were old enough.

I have never heard of anyone else doing this, so I don’t know where my stepmother got the idea. But it seemed that she had done it as a child and was just passing a tradition on to us. She never was very good at discerning things boys would gladly do from things girls might do more gladly.

I find it interesting that today (and now for a very long time) April Fool’s Day (April 1 in the U.S.) is a much better known and “observed” (if that’s even the right word) “special day” than May 1.

But, nevertheless and whatever…Happy May Day to everyone! (But don’t expect a May basket on your doorstep from me! 🙂


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  • Well, it is Labour Day over here in Belgium! We celebrate a holiday today!

    • rogereolson

      Our Labor Day (as you may know) is in September. But I read somewhere yesterday about riots yesterday in some European countries over austerity measures (because it was International Workers Day).

  • J.E. Edwards

    Haha! Now that’s funny. Sounds like I just missed that era. I like hearing those kind of anecdotes. Sentimentalism is a virtue…isn’t it?

    • rogereolson

      I certainly hope so! Because I’m hopelessly sentimental. But some of those memories make me cringe, too.

  • Marianne Meye Thompson

    When we were kids, we would make May baskets (really just paper cones with handles), put flowers in them, hang them on neighbors’/friends’ doorknobs, ring the doorbell, and run away and hide and watch them find them. My mom is from California, but we did this in the midwest. I never knew anyone else who did it, but I think 2 people makes a tradition, right?

    • rogereolson

      Marianne! It’s good to see you here. Thanks for helping me realize this wasn’t just my family! I looked into this a little on the web and apparently it was a tradition brought to the U.S. by central European immigrants. (My stepmother’s mother was from Switzerland.) Yes, to paraphrase: “Where two or three grew up with the same strange practices there is a tradition.”

  • Jerome Ellard

    Happy “May Day” Dr. Olson!
    No, I don’t “observe” it or rememember having done so as a child (I’m 57 now). All I ever remember were the communist conotations…
    So, when you resisted your step-mom’s May Day basket activity, did she come up with someone else to help distribute them? (I do appreciate her heart for honoring elderly folks – I wonder how they liked receiving the baskets?)

    • rogereolson

      I don’t remember. She and my dad adopted two girls–when my brother and I were teens. I don’t recall if she made them do this. I think the tradition died out (for our family, at least) when I finally refused to ring doorbells and yell “May Day!” anymore. I came to realize that someone might think I’m yelling “Mayday!” and call the police thinking someone’s having an emergency. 🙂

  • Jeanne

    May Day was HUGE in the Midwest and celebrated just as your stepmother had you celebrate! Many people continue this very fun tradition today. In fact, I did it with my daycare children today. I celebrated it as a child and I celebrated it with my own children when I was raising them. It left all of us with very fond memories. I can understand boys – especially at a certain age – not liking it as much as girls. But, when the whole neighborhood participates it is pure fun. The doorbell rings all day long and what is more fun for a child to keep going to the and finding fun little “friendship baskets” of goodies from all their little friends in the neighborhood! Fifty years later I still have wonderful memories of those days….. So sorry that wasn’t your experience!!!!

    • rogereolson

      I’m glad to know someone enjoys it! I agree…it’s probably more a girl thing than a boy thing. But I lived in the upper Midwest much of my life and never heard of the practice (after my own childhood).

      • Lois Tverberg

        I grew up in northeast Iowa, so I can affirm that I was participating in a “Midwest” thing. (Where did you grow up, Roger?)

        • rogereolson

          central Iowa

  • Daniel E. Johnson Sr.

    Growing up in North Dakota we made little baskets out of construction paper, tucked in a little candy, left them on the neighbor’s doorstep. Whatever happened to May Day?

    • rogereolson

      I think it got overshadowed by Halloween and April Fool’s Day. We (our society) tends to like the darker side of things now. May Day is too sweet for people raised on television in the last couple of decades.

  • Lois Tverberg

    My friends and I made May baskets – usually just Dixie cups filled with popcorn and jelly beans. We’d set them on other kids’ door steps. Then we’d ring the door bell and run away. I always thought it was fun, but I think it’s a more girl-friendly activity. All my little girlfriends made them for each other.

  • Jerry

    Never celebrated it in school or othrewise, proably becasue my community clebrated Labor Day as a workers tribute. I was rasied with the understanding that May Day was a communist/socialist holiday.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, so was I. Which was why we suffered through “Government Day” on May 1–to counter “International Workers Day” which was (we were told) a communist holiday.

  • My mother used to do the knock on the door, leave flowers, and run away thing, so you were not alone! 🙂

  • All I can say is that at 4:20am on May Day I might have been stealthily delivering a May basket prepared by my wife for a dear friend! May Day has been a ritual for us for many years now.

    • rogereolson

      I hope you didn’t ring their doorbell and yell “May Day!” at 4:20 AM! It’s good to know from so many people that the quirky tradition I balked at as a boy is still alive and well. My message to parents is: Please don’t make your little boys do this; you’re embarrassing them! I speak from experience.

  • We totally did the May Basket thing! My sisters would have me help them create the baskets. I do remember being excited when a neighbor girl made one for me. It stopped when my older sister took some class in high school or college and learned the pagan significance of it all.
    To me it was a great excuse to ring somebody’s doorbell and run. (Something us boys were already doing year ’round anyway!)

  • Keith Price

    I do not recall celebrating May Day in school. Only the standard holidays (New Years, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) did the schools close. Valentines Day and Halloween and other occasions like them we’re always available for celebrating depending on the teachers.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hope you didn’t have to endure May Day like this. The Occupy Portland protesters pulled their celebration from a different tradition… 🙁