May 1st is May Day, a holiday steeped in folklore, history and traditions that signal the return of spring. In elementary school, you may have celebrated this day with a Maypole dance around the school’s flagpole. Or, perhaps your family used to make May Day baskets to set at your neighbors’ door. The customs that define this date, passed down through many generations, have ties to the way we experience nature and hope for its bounty.
Astronomically, May Day is the midway point between the spring equinox and summer solstice. But culturally, it is the defining moment for the start of spring. As with many nature-based celebrations during this time of year, May Day’s customs are rooted in agriculture. With crops beginning to grow and baby animals just old enough to follow their mother around, it is no wonder that people felt it was time to sing, dance and decorate.
The Maypole dance is one of the more well-known traditions. The original Maypole was a tree and in the Middle Ages villages would compete to see who had the tallest one. The Maypole dance includes a number of people circling the pole, each holding a brightly colored streamer. Dancers skip in moving patterns to lilting music, weaving in and out with their fellow dancers. By the end of the dance, the Maypole is covered with an intricate braid of ribbons. The celebratory dance was used as an appeal for bountiful crops and fertile livestock. Now, it is a festive dance that brings friends and neighbors together.
A May Day basket was another popular tradition, most notably in the late 1800s to early 1900s. The custom was to make a paper cone or basket and fill it with flowers and sweets. The basket maker would try to leave it anonymously, setting it at a doorstep and yelling “May basket!” before running away. In 1920, a group of courageous schoolchildren left a May basket on the White House’s door for the First Lady Grace Coolidge.
While less known today, May baskets are still a lovely way to wish a friend a happy spring. Simply roll up brightly colored paper into a cone, tape it shut and fill it with real or handmade flowers. Or, you can fill an empty milk carton with soil and leave a seed packet with it. Don’t forget to shout, “May basket!”
There are a few other delightful May Day traditions. One superstition is that washing your face with dew on May 1 will bring good luck and beauty. Another is to hang yellow-flowered wreaths and garlands in your doorway. And, because it is a calendar landmark toward summer, kids are encouraged to go barefoot all day.
Historically, May Day decorations nearly always call for wildflowers. We now have a better understanding that removing wildflowers harms wildlife which rely on them for food and shelter. Instead of picking wildflowers for May Day, Red-tail Land Conservancy welcomes the community to wander among the wildflowers at Phyllis and Frank Yuhas Woods on Sunday, May 2 from 1-4pm. This nature preserve is only open a couple of times each year. There’s no better place to take photos of the classic wildflowers which define spring for east central Indiana.
As wildflowers bloom, bird song swells, tree leaves unfurl, and baby wildlife begin to wander, May Day is a time for you to set work aside and join the celebration of life.
Kelley V. Phillips is the Communications & Outreach Manager for Red-tail Land Conservancy. She strives to cultivate wonder in nature and action to protect it.