An old New England tradition that perhaps deserves reviving is the giving of a May basket on May Day. It was popular among children, especially in northern New England, during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
Children made small homemade baskets or used available ones. They filled them with treats: candy, cookies, flowers. Then they’d hang them on the doorknob or leave them on the doorstep of a friend, a sweetheart or a favorite relative. The custom was to knock, yell “May Basket” and then run. If the recipient caught the giver, he or she was entitled to a kiss.
Louisa May Alcott wrote about May baskets in her 1880 children’s book, Jack and Jill. “Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark,” she wrote. She described ‘droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another’s arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly.
“Such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling—it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener,” wrote Alcott.
In 1889, a young man in Taunton, Mass., got up very early and walked a mile and a half to hang a basket on his sweetheart’s door. When he got there he found another basket from another young man already hanging there.
The kissing game proved too much for the parents of Caroline Creevey, who in the 19th century made May baskets of willow twigs and trailing arbutus. She recounted in her book, A Daughter of Puritans, how her father gave her a May Day party to take her mind off osculating boys.
May Basket Misadventure
Renee DesRoberts, writing for the Maine Memory Network, told the story of another May basket adventure that went awry at the Biddeford Pool in 1917.
A Mrs. T. K. Niedringhaus, wife of a St. Louis railroad financier, was spending the night at the Main Street home of Mrs. Fanny C. Foster, another summer resident.
The women heard a knock on the door and,
…”fearing burglars, the house dog was loosed and he chased whoever the party was across the golf links and far away.”
The next day, the women discovered two May Baskets hung on the door by children. As an apology for the chase, each woman held a party for the children.
An item in a Biddeford newspaper concluded, “There are those among the children who aver that they would gladly be chased across the golf links again for another such good time.”
Grace and Edna
In 1918, a friend of Maine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay sent her a May basket. Millay, then a rebellious Vassar student, sent a thank you note to the friend, Corinne Sawyer of Camden:
Dear old chum –
Bless your heart! You
don’t forget me, do you? A May Basket! Why
it made me a little girl again.
It got here in wonderfully good condition
nothing smashed – nothing spilled. And its
perfectfully dear so sweet outside as in –
Children in other parts of the country hung May baskets as well. In 1927, Washington, D.C., schoolchildren hung a May basket on the White House door for First Lady Grace Coolidge.
Hallmark Gets Into the Act
Hallmark tried to bring back the tradition — in fact, it’s still trying. In 1954, the company advertised ‘May Day Baskets’ that come in ’15 colorful designs — five different designs in each package — and can be assembled easily without scissors or glue.’ You could find them in ‘the fine stores where Hallmark cards are sold, and the price was just 50 cents.’
In Roots and Branches: Or growing up in Maine, Jane Rozelle recalled making May baskets:
…one of the “funest” things of spring to do, May Basket time! May 1st all the kids in the neighborhood would be figuring how to make a pretty May basket. It usually started with crepe paper, scissors, maybe a little box, glue and many other ideas.
To just use crepe paper, use two pieces approximately a foot square, or a size that you like, fold it so there was a middle point, keep folding it to make a pointed v. Then cut little v’s out of the side and when you open it up you’ll have a sort of lacy bag with the top sort of a handle. If you had a little box then you could paste different pieces around the side and braid some paper to make a handle.
“May was meant for May baskets, and we hung them all month long in a sweaty helter-skelter of running and hiding,” wrote John Gould in his book, And One to Grow On: Reflections of a Maine Boyhood.
He hung his first May basket on the door of one of his true loves, Grace. Her father answered the door. “Life brings many pleasures, but life has nothing to offer like the shriek of a youthful blonde who has received her first May basket,” he wrote.
Sure enough, Grace chased him, but he met the fate of so many Maine children who go May-basketing. He got clotheslined.
“The first great discovery that came to me, as I sped around the house, was the location of the clothesline. I found it when it sang under my chin,” he wrote. But the evening ended happily, with raspberry shrub and lemon cookies in the kitchen until it was time to go home.
When June came around, Gould and his friends joked about June baskets. They were supposed to be filled with stable manure and left on the doorstep of someone you didn’t like. But no one ever hung one. It was just something you joked about.
This story about the May basket was updated in 2022.