May Day is not a holiday often noted in America. In many parts of the world, May Day functions as the equivalent to our Labor Day in America—at least the way it was originally envisioned—as a day to honor laborers. Internationally, May Day is known as “Labor Recognition Day” or “International Workers Day.”
May 1 is also connected with many nature-based and religious celebrations. It coincides with the Gaelic Beltane celebration, marking the midway point between the vernal equinox and summer solstice. The holiday seeks to protect people, crops and animals, during the growing season. Among other rituals, Beltane is associated with roaring bonfires, as the flames and ashes are believed to have powers of protections. This nature based holiday is presented in Germanic and Scandinavian regions as Walpurgisnacht, As religious traditions emerged the Christians noted this as the Pentecost, honoring the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and other followers of Jesus. Experts point to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot as a related festival, marking God’s gift of the Torah to the nation of Israel.
Among the traditions most closely connected with May Day is the traditional dance around the maypole, with children wrapping brightly colored ribbons around a pole, erected high above their heads. In the liturgical calendar, Although the original meaning of the May pole continues to be debated, some suggest that it represents the axis of the earth or the sacred nature of trees. As a child, our Camp Fire Girls would participate in the custom each spring.
This past May 1, I was recalling the tradition of the May Basket. It is a simple, but lovely, custom that we should encourage not only on this holiday, but year round. As tradition goes, children create small baskets of flowers for neighbors and elders. They leave the baskets at the door of these folks, knocking and then running away. Sometimes kids make their own flower “cones” or baskets and flowers can be picked or purchased. And, in what is news to me, if the gift giver is caught by the recipient, a kiss is exchanged! I wondered if this custom was still in practice, so I posted the question on my personal Facebook page. I was surprised at the energetic conversation that commenced. While some of my friends had not heard of May baskets, they were intrigued by the idea and suggested they might encourage their children to partake in coming years. Many of my friends from Oklahoma sentimentally recalled preparing the baskets with their mothers and joyfully leaving them as gifts. The anonymity of the gesture seems to add to the thrill of participation.
A handful of friends either passed the ritual to their children or continued gifting baskets as adults. My heart was lifted by the remembrances that my friends shared, so I decided to do a little basket giving myself after the work day was done. Usually the flowers are left in the morning, but I figured evening baskets might be well received, too. I no longer live in a house with neighbors having porches, rather I am in a high rise in Manhattan. It occurred to me that I see a number of elderly people in our lobby and maybe they would be appreciative recipients for the gesture. I colluded with my doorman who identified two elderly ladies and an elderly couple who I could target for my random act of kindness.
So, off I went to my local Fairway market, to purchase flowers. I made several simple, but pretty, bouquets, tied with ribbon and placed in gift bags with colorful tissue paper. As I now realized many did not know of the May Basket custom, I included a note with each bouquet, introducing myself and explaining my intention. I quietly sneaked to the appropriate doors on the 2nd, 27th and 31st floors and left them hanging on the doorknobs. I felt a little sneaky, but mostly gratified, thinking how I would feel if my neighbor extended such a gesture. I immediately received a thank you phone call patched through by my doorman, from Mr. and Mrs. Goldman on the floors below. They were genuinely surprised and appreciative. And last night, I noticed a card slipped under my apartment door. Mrs. Van Haver, not only expressed her thanks in a beautiful note, but she included a photograph of “my” flowers on her coffee table—a real gift to me!
I hope that each year, I have the time and open heart to leave baskets for others. While it is easy to give these spring reminders to friends, I particularly like reaching out to someone I do not yet know. There are so many older people who live alone, these days. Often these folks have no relatives who live nearby, or perhaps they have few, if any, blood relatives at all. I suspect that loneliness and isolation must be companions at this point in life’s journey. I would sure like it if my simple act would lift their spirits, if only on May Day. I hope that by opening the discussion on Facebook, I may have encouraged some of my friends to partake in this custom (and report back to us all!). It’s just another occasion that proves that it is “better to give than to receive.”