In Medieval times, Nov. 1 was considered the onset of winter. The Celtic pagan celebration of Beltane took place exactly one- half year later, thus providing a reason to celebrate the coming of spring on May 1.

A maypole featured prominently in the early history of English colonization in North America when Thomas Morton erected one at Merry Mount, 1627. One year later, the Puritans from nearby Plymouth Plantation charged him with organizing what they believed to be a pagan celebration and wanted no part of it, or him, in their new colony, resulting in his banishment.

During the following three centuries, May Day in America gradually became an occasion for popular celebrations reverting back to the original dancing around a maypole and crowning a Queen of the May.

Young children celebrated by donning costumes or their “Sunday best” clothes, including decorated hats for the girls, less fancy ones for the boys. Tin whistles, pie-plate drums and other homemade instruments provided marching music for neighborhood processions.

The group wound their way to the local school yard, where a maypole with streamers attached had already been erected. Songs were sung while dancers formed into two circles weaving in and out in opposite directions creating a checkered design on the pole from top to bottom.

The occasion is celebrated more elaborately overseas. In England the entire town of Cornwall is decorated with spring greenery. Dancers passing through the streets are accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes, singing a traditional May Day song. Oxford celebrates by keeping its many pubs open from sunrise throughout the night. Madrigals are still sung from the roof of the college while celebrants gather on the bridge to listen.

Students at St. Andrews in Scotland have a torch-lit parade gathering on the beach late on April 30 in preparation for their run into the North Sea at sunrise on the May 1. Villagers in Scandinavian countries decorate their maypoles with greenery and fresh flowers. Villagers in rural Germany celebrate Walpurgisnacht by gathering around bonfires April 30. The following day the maypole is decorated and remains in the village throughout the summer.

Elsewhere in the world, celebrations take a different slant. Cuba, the People’s Republic of China and the former Soviet Union feature military parades. Political demonstrations are held in large cities in Germany, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

May Baskets

Giving May Baskets was another way of celebrating. Two local residents recently shared their memories of those childhood days. Elizabeth Peterson said:

“During the ’30s and ’40s, my mother created beautiful May Baskets using colored crepe paper and her Singer sewing machine to make a row of long stitches. We children would pull the thread to make ruffles to be glued in tiers on various shaped boxes and attached handles.

“Then the filling! Candies, cookies, etc., which, of course, we sampled! Sometimes fresh flowers were added. Best of all was giving the baskets to family and friends. The procedure was to hang the basket, ring the doorbell and run! The giftee was meant to chase us and kiss us!

“My feelings were always crushed when a boy I adored didn’t reciprocate! On the other side of the coin – I was always given a very big and elaborately filled basket by a boy whose father owned a candy store – and I refused to chase him, but kept the basket full of goodies!”

Jane Beckwith grew up in southern New Hampshire during this time and also made baskets rather than purchase them at the local Woolworth’s or Grant’s stores. She said:

“The easiest to make were construction paper, cut and folded, glued together with paper handles attached. All sorts of fancy, cut-paper decorations could be added as time, patience and supplies allowed.

“The prettiest were made of crepe paper with ruffles and streamers glued to paper cups or souffla cups with yarn or twine for handles. My mother told me when she was young baskets were filled with fresh-picked violets and Mayflowers. We usually bought penny candy to fill ours.

“Early in the morning, before school on May 1, you would sneak up to the door of a friend’s house, hang a basket on the door knob, knock or ring the doorbell and run to hide. Tradition indicated the gift was supposed to be from a ‘secret admirer’ but we usually couldn’t refrain from giggles then jumping out to share a piece of candy.”

Caring Kids of Cape Elizabeth delivering May Baskets last year. Students a Lebanon Valley college in Pennsylvania dance around the Maypole, 1964.

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