Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such 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.
In her story of Jack and Jill, Louisa May Alcott perfectly captured the excitement of May-day: an excitement my friends and I shared throughout childhood. Today, the tradition nearly forgotten, it’s worth recalling the explanation offered in an 1871 issue of the Sterling, Illinois, Gazette:
A May-basket is — well, I hardly know how to describe it; but ’tis something to be hung on a door. Made of paper generally, it contains almost anything, by way of small presents you have in mind to put in it, together with your respects, best wishes — love, perhaps. It is hung after dark at the door of anybody the hanger fancies. — Which done, the said hanger knocks and scampers.
Given to teachers, neighbors, the home-bound and the elderly, as well as to friends or love-interests, May-baskets were meant to endure: at least for a time. Because of that, not just any paper suited the purpose. Construction paper made a fine cone, sturdy enough for a few violets and ribbons, but wallpaper from a sample book was the ne plus ultra of May-day craft supplies.
Pre-printed with lovely floral designs, heavy enough to support small candies or trinkets as well as flowers, those wallpaper cones hung on doorknobs for weeks after the big day: refilled with garden flowers after the original gifts had faded away.
Not only the young ones enjoyed making and exchanging May baskets. Edna St. Vincent Millay, who spent a semester at Barnard College before transferring to Vassar in 1913, was a bit of a hell-raiser in college: smoking cigarettes, cutting classes, and heading off for midnight walks in the woods.
And yet, before leaving Vassar in 1917 for the Bohemian life of Greenwich Village, she wrote this, in May, 1914, to her friend Corinne Sawyer:
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 [sic]
perfectfully dear, so sweet outside as in —
I love you a keg-ful, Corinne of Camden, and when
I get home we’ll talk as ever.
Member me to your folks.
– Vincent of Vassar
It’s possible that Millay also celebrated the season by taking part in Vassar’s Maypole dance. Like May baskets, Maypoles have a long history, reaching back to the European pagan spring festival of Beltane. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly’s “Contributors Club,” a forum intentionally designed for anonymous essays, one contributor recalled:
A few years ago, revisiting Vassar, I saw the Maypole dance of the seniors. The whole class was there — between two and three hundred. In the clear sunset light they swept over the greensward of the campus, singing their best-loved songs, until they reached the broad green space before the library.
Here they flowed out in a great white ring of intertwining dancers. In its midst was an inner ring of dancers, in pale colors — blue and pink and lavender and green and yellow — circling about the Maypole, winding and unwinding its rainbow ribbons, while outside these, but still within the white ring, were smaller circlets of dancers, eddying and swirling to the music of the songs.
It was a lovely vision — Chaucer might have dreamed it — but what impressed me, more even than its beauty, was its wholeness: here was something in which many had united to make up a multitudinous One.
Among the best-loved songs of the Vassar seniors might have been “A Rondelay,” written by Antoinette Newell, member of the class of 1897, and published by the Vassar Miscellany that same year:
Hark to the song of the blithesome May!
May-day singeth a rondelay;
In Nature’s key and in Nature’s way —
In the rippling brook and the sunbeam’s ray,
in the warbling thrush and the chattering jay —
May-day singeth her rondelay.
Conceivably, at least one of Thomas Morley‘s madrigals might have been included in Vassar’s celebrations. Born in Norwich, England, in 1557 or 1558, Morley became organist at Norwich Cathedral in 1583. Made organist of St. Giles, Cripplegate (London) in 1589, by 1591 he had become organist of St Paul’s Cathedral: also in London.
Enamored of the light-hearted Italian madrigals popular at the time, Morley dedicated his Canzonets for Three Voices to the Countess of Pembroke in 1593. His own first madrigals appeared in 1594, and a collection of balletts (light, dancelike part-songs similar to madrigals, often containing a chorus of “fa-la-las”) was published in 1595.
One of the most recognizable in that collection, “Now is the Month of Maying” has endured. Part of my own high school choral experience, it still is taught. A favorite of many early music enthusiasts, it remains a perfect antidote to lingering winter gloom.
Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing. Fa la.
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass. Fa la.
The Springtime, all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, fa la,
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground. Fa la.
Fie then! why sit we musing,
Youth’s sweet delight refusing? Fa la.
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play barley-break? Fa la.
Four hundred years and more after Morley, we’ve nearly eliminated free play from the lives of our children, so it’s little wonder that his vision of merry lads and nymphs treading greeny, springtime grass for their games seems anachronistic, if not slightly unnerving.
Masters of regulating relaxation and judging the productivity of play — and just a little guilty about our pleasures — we might profit from a slight revision of one of Robert Herrick’s cautionary verses:
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, be merry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.
It’s not difficult to imagine both Herrick and Morley peering at us from the past, offering a few more tidbits of advice in language we might be able to understand: Stop bearing an infinite grudge against the universe. Tear down your self-constructed fences, or jump over them; don’t leave free-ranging to the chickens. Stop binge-watching Netflix, and start binge-watching the world, before it’s too late.
You might well enjoy it.
Sing we and chant it,
While love doth grant it,
Not long youth lasteth,
And old age hasteth;
Now is best leisure
To take our pleasure.
All things invite us
Now to delight us,
Hence, care, be packing,
No mirth be lacking;
Let spare no treasure
To live in pleasure.