May Day!

How do you celebrate?

May 1st used to be celebrated.

Several different types of celebrations have been associated with the day.

Probably originally a fertility ritual to ensure good crops and lots of livestock (here), some believe it goes back to ancient agrarians, including Romans. But most date it to Medieval times in Europe, especially Bavarian Germany (here). (There is always a caveat about Midsummer, celebrated by my people, the Scandinavians on the solstice in June. We will get to that another time, because it is a fun celebration and involves crawfish.)

Then, there is the “International Workers Day,” which, unsurprisingly, is the only reference Brittanica covers (here). (To be fair, they do get into other origins, but you can see where their sentiments lie.)

And that May Day, the one where the Soviets used to parade their tanks around Red Square and North Koreans and other communist countries did the same — that’s the May Day I started out to address: in the context of “since our own country has progressed so far into communism, should we expect tanks on the street in DC?”

But no. President Trump did that on our real national holiday, July 4th. And only once, I think, to the cacophany of so-called “liberals” hollering “Nazi!” The same “liberals” who support the Azov battalian in Ukraine. But I digress.

Because, once I got to thinking about how I remembered May Day, I realized that that history is almost completely gone. And it became a little more interesting to explore than whether or not disgruntled “workers” (who now, by the way, want $30/hour to sling burgers) would man the barricades waving “WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE” banners.

The lighter-hearted celebrations were still around when I was a child.

I am so old, that we still did “May Baskets” when I was in elementary school. It was probably a Victorian affectation, because they were a bit uptight about outright “PDA”s, so the basket on the front door was perfect. You can read about it here, amazingly!

I remember making them for school and putting them on other kids desks. Somewhat like what we did in the stone age with valentines. The little baskets were sold in “5 & 10″s, the precursors to big box stores of today. No one whined about some people not having enough money to do it, or some kids getting more baskets than others. We were all pretty much the same whitebread, middle class kids, and if someone got more baskets and someone got none — guess what? That was how you learned that life isn’t fair. But I digress.

The May Basket practice was already dying out by the time I was in 3rd or 4th grade, and hardly anyone did a May Pole celebration.

May Pole’s were apparently too suggestive and frivolous for the Puritans who settled our country, anyway. (And according to a few sources, they’ve been co-opted by Wiccans.)

But years ago, when I was part of an art critique group consisting of people much older than me — the leader, our wonderful mentor, had studied under Matisse at the Louvre School — we were invited each year to the his historic home in Yanceyville, where they had a permanent “May Pole,” which their caretaker had to “re-ribbon” every year.

We all felt a little silly, even just walking around it holding the ribbons, and wrapping them around the pole to the bottom.

But I can picture young men and women on that lawn in the early 20th Century. Someone would have had to “re-ribbon” the pole then, too. Usually there were two colors, one for each, men and women, and the idea was to dance around the pole, weaving around each other until the ribbons were wrapped at the bottom. As you got closer to the pole, you got closer to each other. So I picture those prim Victorians taking the opportunity to bat eyes and whisper.

(Robert Case’s painting of the Maypole at Yanceyville included all of us “mature” people, feeling a bit silly.)

In older times, the May Pole may have started the “courting season,” since spring is traditionally that. Even the birds “court” each other in spring. My cardinal pair were feeding each other seeds just yesterday. But I digress.

Still, the silly maypole dance, coopted by white witches or displaced by parades of tanks, is a sight better than stripper poles, which is what modern “courting” age young people associate with poles. Just sayin’….

The “Family Handyman,” who had the unexpected info about May Baskets thinks they might deserve a reboot, as he put it. But kids don’t wander their own neighborhoods much any more, and schools would find a way to make them racist, so….

….I’ll just be glad to not see parades of tanks in DC and call it good.


If you want to know more about the late Benjamin Forrest Williams, here is the book about him, for which we held the book signing at my gallery in Raleigh in 2014.

We’ll look in to the “mayday” distress call another time. And Midsummer, the Scandinavian version of May Day.

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