People of a certain age — I’ll place it as 50 and up, but that is just a guess — remember May baskets fondly.

They traditionally were giving on May 1, or May Day, and it is a different kind of May Day than the one from the Cold War newsreels of Soviet troops and tanks slowly moving through the streets of Moscow.

But while May 1 was the most popular day to give May baskets, they could be given any time during the year. Grandparents would make them for their grandchildren, and give them the first day in May that the grandchildren visited. Or people would celebrate on Saturday or Sunday the first weekend in May.

May baskets usually were given anonymously. They were small and filled with flowers and occasionally a small gift. They could be given as a token of appreciation to a neighbor.

In other cases, the May basket would have a token of romance. Young men or women would make baskets, leave them at the front door, ring the doorbell and run off. The recipient would then chase the giver of the basket and offer a kiss in return.

For Kim Gillies of the Oakhurst neighborhood in Cape Elizabeth, the May basket is a neighborly gesture. Children in her neighborhood have been giving the baskets for about eight years, and she is looking to spread the tradition to the rest of the town.

“Ours are just little tokens of kindness that we try to spread around our neighborhood, and now for the whole town,” she said. “The baskets are only 3 or 4 inches big, and we buy carnations because they are inexpensive and we can get a lot of them. Then we cut some forsythia and forget-me-nots from around the yard and add those to the baskets.”

Her group has always created the baskets on May 1 and delivers them to senior citizens. The baskets are filled with foam core, and the children add the flowers and deliver them.

“I think it is a wonderful tradition for the kids, something we can pass to the next generation,” said Gillies, who remembers making May baskets growing up on Cape Cod.

Bath has a May Day celebration every year on the first Saturday in May, and this year, it coincided with the traditional May Day.

Jennifer Geiger of Main Street Bath said the celebration begins with the traditional maypole, in which children hold ribbons and decorate a pole by walking around it, while “on the other side we have a more modern tradition, a big citywide yard sale.”

The Project Graduation group sells May baskets, but they contain fudge rather than flowers, Geiger said. But the local farmers market is open, and there will be a lot of seedlings there.

Lois Berg Stack, an ornamental horticulture specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Orono, says May baskets are an old tradition that has faded.

“I remember doing them as a youngster and remember weaving baskets,” she said. “The hardest part then was finding flowers to put in them, but that won’t be a problem this year.”

Donna Allen of Barrows Greenhouse in Gorham said she used to make a lot of May baskets, but “it is a tradition that has unfortunately lapsed.” She is down to making one or two a year now.

“It was a celebration of flowers and spring, but I think the popularity of flowers on Mothers Day sort of overtook it,” she said. “But May baskets were just left on someone’s steps.”

Allen thinks the use of flowers in May had a religious significance, because May is both named for and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The church had a maypole, and children created a crown of flowers for Mary.

When I was growing up in the late 1950s in Farmington — where there wasn’t a whole lot for middle-school-age, pre-drivers-license kids to do — an alteration of May baskets served as an excuse for a party.

A group of kids would decide to give a May basket to someone and take up a donation to buy soft drinks or similar goodies.

The group would knock on the door, leave the basket, yell “May basket for Bobby,” and run off. A sort of hide-and-seek and tag game ensued until everyone was caught. The whole group would share the goodies, listen to music and dance.

Looking back, it would be interesting to know if anyone gave the parents notice that the party was coming. And it surely had nothing to do with flowers — or gardening. 

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

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