May Day Baskets

When you’re growing up, you tend to assume that everyone has the same customs as you. When I moved away from Des Moines and found kids just saying “trick or treat” on Halloween, not starting with a joke, I thought “what are these kids? Savages? You have to WORK before you get your candy, ya commies!” But alas, telling jokes while trick or treating was strictly a Des Moines thing (though I’ve also heard of it in isolated parts of Ohio, as well).

Similarly unheard of anywhere else I’ve lived is the practice of giving out baskets, alternately known as May Day Baskets or simply May Baskets, on May Day (May 1st). It was a big enough thing for kids in my town that I assumed it was a nationwide holiday, despite the lack of a Charlie Brown special.

In Des Moines in the 1980s, on May Day we’d make and decorate baskets with paper cups, markers, construction paper, pipe cleaners, and all of the other standard craft supplies we had on hand for the crafts on Betty Lou and the Magic Window, a local kids’ TV show that ran for decades. Once we’d made the baskets, we’d fill them with jelly beans, candy, pretzels, and other little treats, then leave one on a friend’s doorstep, ring the bell, and run like hell. If anyone CAUGHT you running away, they were allowed to hug you, kiss you, or punch you (opinions differed). I wouldn’t know, since no one caught me. I was that good, yo.

While not strictly a Des Moines thing, it was certainly less popular elsewhere. A friend of mine moved to Omaha in second grade; I remember his mother being shocked when he only got two May baskets that year. I remember doing it as late as 1992.

Though this seems to have been a bit more widespread than telling jokes on Halloween, it’s certainly not a holiday custom that enjoys the popularity of, say, egg hunts. However, while it’s not nearly as well documented as May Poles or choosing a May Queen (neither of which I ever experienced, personally), it may go back just as far as those ancient customs. This 1878 book refers to it as an old Saxon custom brought over from England to America long in the past (while noting that the practice was much less popular in 1878 than it had been in the past). Other sources indicate that they were originally called “May Buskets” or “May Bushes,” and were bouqets of flowers left at the door of a girl you hoped would be the May Queen on the way to the May Pole dance.

May Day has traditionally been a fertility festival, though by the notoriously squeamish 19th century it was more often spoken of as a “spring festival.” The sexual symbolism of dancing around a giant pole is about as obvious as symbolism gets, but the connection of baskets to fertility may not be as readily apparent unless you think about a bit (poles, baskets…I can honestly say it never occurred to me until right now). But that doesn’t mean that May Baskets necessarily symbolize anything sexual – as with many Halloween customs, the fact that the custom may be SIMILAR to ancient customs doesn’t mean it’s necessarily DESCENDED from them. (Rule #1: be wary of any historical account that says anything has ancient Druidic origins. We know next to nothing about what sort of stuff the Druids actually believed and did. The Druid angle in contemporary paganism is sort of a re-imagining).

The custom in Des Moines in the 1980s differed a bit from the old customs I’ve read about. It seems that traditional may baskets are hung on doorknobs (ours were just left on the porch).

And, by the way – filling it with stale popcorn was not cool. I mean you, John’s Mom. Popcorn is just filler. At least the old “orange in a Christmas stocking” filler is healthy and tasty. Stale popcorn sucks.

But, by all accounts, the practice has faded in popularity over the decades, and by the 1980s Des Moines was one of a fairly small handful of hold-outs. I’m not at all sure it’s still a custom there now, but I have been hearing from other people whose children still practice the custom.

So, let’s see how far this goes, and how big it still is! Did you do May Day Baskets? Do people still do them in your town?  (Edited to add: in the first years since the post went up, there’ve been only a few comments, strongly indicating that it’s largely unknown and falling out of favor even where it persists). 

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  1. owltiem

    In the 1980s and 1990s in Columbia County, upstate New York, we did May Baskets, but it was one of those enforced traditions that the grownups made us do with very little input from us kids, and it involved making paper baskets, putting bouquets (usually of violets and lilies of the valley, those being in bloom all over the place) in them, and hanging them on doorknobs. I don't live there anymore, but my sister does, and she says it's no longer done.

  2. May


  3. J. Blessinger

    In rural NE Montana in the 70s, in Kindergarten we made flower-filled May-Day baskets, but I rarely saw them used in practice. Today I live in Madison, SD, and this past May-Day several decorated, disposable cups of candy for our child from different friends appeared at our door, so the Des Moines tradition apparently persists up here.

    I single-handedly keep the bouquet, ring, and run traditional alive for my wife.

  4. Cookielady

    I grew up in Perry, IA in the 70's and 80's and totally loved making May Day baskets. I live in Dallas now and they don't do it hear, but I'm trying to bring it back. Not the flower kind so much as the candy kind of basket.


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