This Merry Month of Maying

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.
Vassar College Maypole Dance, 1936 (Click image for larger version)

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 Morleys 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,
Fa la.
Not long youth lasteth,
And old age hasteth;
Now is best leisure
To take our pleasure.
Fa la.
All things invite us
Now to delight us,
Fa la.
Hence, care, be packing,
No mirth be lacking;
Let spare no treasure
To live in pleasure.
Fa la.

Comments always are welcome.

97 thoughts on “This Merry Month of Maying

  1. Your videos are such a pleasure to sound and sight. You make me pine for the beauty that will likely be lacking for my great-grandchildren, but they might be the generation who returns to classic love of music and literature. Perhaps. This tech-driven lethargy must come to an end when rejected by some youth “rebels” in the future. Somebody someday will say, “How boring!” I would love to be here when that happens.

    1. You’re probably the best guarantee that your grandchidren and great-grandchildren will have an appreciation for music, art, and literature as adults. When I was growing up, people read to one another, sang as a matter of course, and made art wherever they could. Hand-crocheted lace and hand-turned candlesticks weren’t high art, but they helped to stimulate an appreciation for beauty. I know you’ve done your part to stimulate that same appetite in all the children you’ve cared for over the years.

      As for the technologies that surround us, and the uses to which they’re being put: some are good, some are very good, and some are unutterably stupid. Like brawling over thousand dollar Air Jordan sneakers at midnight, some things just aren’t worth the cost. I am beginning to see some good posts and articles now and then about such things as selfie-obsession. It’s going to be interesting to watch over the next years.

      1. Selfie-obsession in a positive light? Now there is a perspective I had not considered. I’m open for persuasion, however. I’ll grant you that I love some of the ones put on FB for me, but I am not impressed by any except my grandchildren. Nothing selfish about me! I just cannot imagine Kate Middleton doing a selfie, but her grandmother might love it.

        1. Oh! I didn’t mean that the selfie obsession is good, but that the articles about the phenomenon are good: i.e., well written. I personally think the obsession with selfies in many cases verges on the pathological, and is irritating in general.

          1. Oh, I misread. That’s a different kettle of fish altogether. I agree. And the ones that particularly irk me are the tongue out – most often from beautiful girls. Disgusting! I have a beautiful granddaughter who went through that stage. She has matured beyond it now. Thankfully.

  2. Excellent and poignant essay, as usual. It brought forth a few rusty memories of making May baskets in school and of doing a Maypole dance at an after-school dance studio when I was six-seven years old. Love the Morley videos.

    1. Lucky you, to have the chance to take part in a Maypole dance. We had Maypoles around, but as I recall, they were mostly symbolic table and bulletin board decorations.. I didn’t see a real Maypole dance until I was much older. Even then, it wasn’t precisely a Maypole, but a midsummer pole — part of the Swedish tradition.

      We didn’t always make cone-shaped baskets, either. Sometimes, we purchased frilly little tissue paper baskets, and filled those with candies and other goodies. Those were considered “fancy,” and generally were taken to nursing homes or hospitals as group projects by Camp Fire Girls groups, 4-H’ers, and Sunday School classes.

  3. What a wonderful post, Linda. I remember so well making May baskets as a kid. I haven’t done it in years and why not? I make all that other paper crap! It was such fun. Well, I have a few hours till May begins so you never know! A few years ago a friend had a May party and we did the Maypole! It was such a fun, silly, joyful thing — men and women pulling colorful streamers, laughing and loving each others’ company!

    The music is beautiful. I’d forgotten how much I loved madrigals. I used to be in a madrigal choir. Very beautiful and wonderful images to go with them.

    May you have a lovely May (and June and July and such) and remember one other May song — The Lusty Month of May from Camelot! Yet another favorite!

    1. What a laugh you gave me with your reference to your other (ahem) “paper projects,” Jeanie. I’m really surprised that you haven’t been a May basket maker — or that some of your favorite places, like Southern Exposure, haven’t offered classes. Not that a class is necessary, of course. Of all the projects there are, May baskets are the simplest. One of my friends mentioned today that they would use the little pint strawberry baskets, and some people have used cut-off paper milk cartons.

      The music is beautiful, isn’t it? Not only that, it’s memorable. This post got its start when I realized I was whistling “Now Is the Month of Maying” while I was washing the car. I’ve meant to do a May day post in the past, but I usually remembered it in mid-June.

      The “Camelot” song is a perfect addition, and quite in the spirit of Morley. As the lyrics have it, “it’s time to do a wretched thing or two, and try to make each precious day one you’ll always rue.” Have at it!

      1. I think most of mine were paper cones but not all that long ago when I was on my peat-pot decorating kick, I made peat pot maying baskets (which really were mighty nice, if I do say so myself!). That’ Month of Maying” has run through my head, too! I’m glad you did this post — made me smile in so many ways!

    1. There’s much truth in that, Terry — which only makes it all the more wonderful that we have our memories, and that we can pass on some of our joys to others.

      One thing is certain. When I read these lyrics of Morley’s — “The Springtime, all in gladness, Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness” — I certainly think of your mountains and valleys, and the rich profusion of flowers overspreading them. It must be wonderful fun to be among them.

    1. And did I think of you when I wrote that? Not while it was in process, I didn’t — but afterwards? Oh, yes.

      By the way, if you didn’t click that Beltane link up above, you need to, just for the photo. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the very image of the Burning Man in their wicker man, and read the details of its burning. It’s a bit of a cross between the burning of your Man and theTemple, with all of the offerings, but there’s clearly a connection. I need to look more closely at your archives and see if there’s anything there about a link to Beltane.

      1. Very interesting on the Beltane festival, Linda, very much like Burning Man. I think pagan festivals spoke to various aspects of our human nature that have been lost in modern religions. I’ve been reading Alan Watts’ biography, In MY Own Way, and he speaks to that issue. –Curt

  4. I’ve always known about the May pole but never experienced anything of the sort. This is so interesting to learn about the May cones that were hung on doors. Millay is among my favorite authors. I’m not well read at all. Just never had time to put into reading much except mysteries and after I had my children I turned to other hobbies.

    1. We loved making and sharing the May baskets. As hard as it may be for people today to believe, there wasn’t an ounce of commercialism in it. You could buy the fancy baskets at the dime store that were meant as party favors, but generally we just used what was around, including the bits of ribbon and lace left over from sewing projects.

      Millay’s work is delightful. One of my favorite snippets of poetry is from her poem called “Departure”:

      “It’s little I care what path I take,
      And where it leads it’s little I care,
      But out of this house, lest my heart break,
      I must go, and off somewhere!”

  5. Have heard of the May-pole but have been very ignorant of it till now. I am all for doing silly things, running around with flowers, and laughing even if it means going around a pole holding stringers. I have been all wound up getting a book formatted, knee deep in margins, fonts and PDF files and can do with some pole dancing and basket weaving. It seems a sensible option.

    1. There’s not a thing wrong with a bit of silliness now and then, Gerard — or just plain fun, for all that. One thing I didn’t know about Maypole dances is that, in some places, it’s the custom for dancers to retrace their steps and undo the lovely patterns they’ve woven. It seems that Maypole dancing can be more or less complicated: like most things in life.

      Has Helvi taken part in midsummer festivities involving the decorated pole? I’ve learned that, in countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, the maypole doesn’t have anything to do with the month of May — the name refers to the custom of decorating a pole with green leaves and branches, like this.

      1. Helvi tells me it has more to do with celebrating summer and in Finland they used to also decorate a pole with greenery. It has nothing to do with May.
        It reminds me too of the story of the Dutch boy holding his finger in the dyke to prevent flooding. It is also something I first heard after arriving in Australia.

        1. It’s interesting to read about Scandinavian customs. While some seem common to all the countries — Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark — others are more specific. It’s the same with foods and dress. There are commonalities, but even though the Christmas cookies a Norwegian friend and I make bear the same name, the cookie itself is different.

      2. This from Wiki;
        “In Sweden and Swedish speaking parts of Finland, the maypole is usually called a midsummer pole, midsommarstång, as it appears at the Midsummer celebrations, although the literal translation majstång also occurs, were the word maj refers to the old Swedish word maja which means dress and not to the month of May. The traditions surrounding the maypoles vary locally, as does the design of the poles, although the design featuring a cross and two rings is most common nowadays. A perhaps more original incarnation is the one still in use in the Swedish landscape of Småland where the pole carries a large horizontally suspended ring around it, hanging from ropes attached at the top of the pole. This perhaps more original form of course strongly reinforces the procreation symbolism.”

  6. I immediately thought of the song from “Camelot,” which I see someone has already brought up. The mention of the bonny lass in the first Morley and the old-fashioned third-person-singular verbs in the second remind me of a line from a P.D.Q Bach song:

    My bonny lass she smelleth,
    making the flowers jealouth.

    I’ve known that bit of satire for decades but I just found out it’s a parody of yet another song by Morley:

    My bonny lass she smileth,
    when she my heart beguileth.

    And now this commenter knoweth
    the debt P.D.Q. Bach to Morley oweth.

    1. Those jealouth flowers are funny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jealouth flower on your blog, but most of them are so pretty and winsome, they have nothing to be jealouth of.

      After wondering how often Morley’s been parodied, I did a little looking, but got stopped by this collection of “Parodies of the Works of English and American Authors.” It seems that parody was more widespread than I’d realized in the 19th century, and quite an acceptable art form.

      It was a reminder of how much parody depends on intimate knowledge of the source material — one reason, perhaps, that literary parody has faded away. It certainly helps to explain Peter Schickele’s success. I don’t think there’s any question that his audience has a better than average knowledge of Bach.

      What I didn’t know is that Schickele was born in Iowa, or that one of his influences was Spike Jones. That explains a lot. There’s nothing like a parody of a parodist!

      1. That book of parodies is a great find. As you said, a parody depends on knowledge of the original. In looking through the list of parodied works, I was aware of some of the originals but not of most. Time erodes from both ends: I wouldn’t recognize many songs that have been popular over the last 20 years, either.

        When I was growing up we had a Spike Jones record, “Der Fuehrer’s Face.” Coincidentally, a week from today marks VE Day, when the Allies defeated Germany. Many so-called Millennials couldn’t even tell you when World War II took place or who fought whom.

        1. I didn’t remember that song — the animated short is hilarious. A friend and I were talking about our memories of Spike Jones, when another name came up: Victor Borge. That led us to think of some of the novelty songs of the time, like “Three Little Fishies. It was a different era, indeed.

          As for not knowing the facts regarding WW II, try asking about the Korean conflict, or even the Vietnam war. For that matter, there have been survey results showing many in the younger generations can’t name the Vice-President or a single Supreme Court justice, let alone describe the difference between direct democracy and representational government. When it comes to that, they’re not alone. I’m a little tired of hearing the phrase “the will of the people” in regard to party nominating processes. Ah, well.

          1. To add insult to injury (as my father liked to say), many of those who can’t identify the people and things you mentioned have been given high school diplomas and even college degrees. Time for another oy vey.

            I remember seeing Victor Borge on television in the 1950s and ’60s. A couple of years ago, when PBS showed a program about him as part of a fundraiser, we went ahead and bought the DVD set being offered.

            Eve has been following the news leading up to next week’s presidential election in the Philippines, where five candidates are competing. Filipinos borrowed many things from America during their half-century under the control of the United States, but I think political shenanigans are a universal trait of human government.

  7. Oh what a delightful essay to introduce the joy and freshness of May and spring. The music added just the right touch. I haven’t seen a weaving of the maypole for many long years but it is a truly wonderful sight. Pity we have lost so many of these old customs.

    1. It occurred to me while writing this how so many of the activities that used to be part of the so-called “physical education” curriculum in grade schools were cooperative rather than competitive. We didn’t have maypole weaving, but we had quadrilles and square dancing, as well as team tumbling and acrobatics.

      Perhaps the maypole weaving was thought too complex for us. I read a couple of accounts of college groups who trained for it, and it is complicated: especially if you un-weave your work at the end.
      But to dance around a maypole? Pure fun — uncomplicated, and a perfect way to enjoy the outdoors after a long winter.

    1. Thank you, Dina. As I mentioned to another reader, I’m glad I remembered to acknowledge May, before it turned into June. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Morley and lighter madrigals always make me smile, too.

  8. Happy May Day Linda!!
    And thank you for this lovely post. I’m sure I shall have “Fa, la, la, laaas” running cheerily through my brain for (at least;) the rest of the day: )
    What a wonderful idea: REusing milk carton-bottoms as May baskets – thoroughly durable, WATERPROOF! (and environmentally friendly in so many ways: )

    1. Thanks, Deb. I hope your day was filled with May-ish treats.The good news is that we not only get May Day, we get a month of Maying. That’s rather a delightful thought, although I’d be pleased if the rain would stop for just a while.

      Waxed paper milk cartons were used for so many things when I was a kid. We used them to make candles at Christmas, too. The ones that were the most fun were the ice-candles. Fill a milk carton bottom with pieces of ice, and then pour the wax over. Voila! A “holey” candle. We used to make round ones, too, but I can’t for the life of me remember what we used as a mold for those. No matter — I’m not going to be making candles anyway.

    1. That looks like a fun event. It’s interesting that they’ve turned May Day into a community celebration. It’s the one occasion that, at least in my experience, stayed smaller-scale.

      As far as I know, Hallmark and the chocolate companies haven’t tried to take it over. I found another woman writing about the traditions who said, “I’m almost afraid to mention May Day, lest the marketers jump on one more opportunity to commercialize fun.” I know how she feels.

  9. Lovely post to brighten this grey day. May Day used to be so much fun when I was little. My Grandmother visited about then and I remember (pre-Kindergarden age even) that we would sit at the table and make little woven paper baskets, then pick some flowers from the backyard and she’d have me loop the baskets on neighbors’ door knobs and run away quickly after ringing the bell. You were supposed to not get caught.

    One of the woven baskets was a flat 2 sided heart joined at the edges with the top open just enough for a flower or two. I finally found the instructions on how to make those a few years ago and saved them. If we don’t teach children from their early years wonder, delight, and caring, they never really get it and continue it later.

    With that concept, for years we helped with a May Pole dance for parents with 3-5 year olds – who love streamers and going in circles – and somehow became very dignified and serious when performing for their families. You have to hope the memory hangs in there. Far better than the street riots and posting that seem to overshadows lovely whimsical traditions now. Such a grim cheerless life with that.

    Happy May Day!(and the flowers are bound to be happy with all the rain even if we’re not -although the hibiscus is beginning to cry “enough”)

    1. I’d never seen those heart baskets until I looked them up just now, Phil. I read that they’re also a Scandinavian tradition, but I don’t remember that my Swedish grandparents ever had them around, or encourged us to make them. But the routine with our baskets was the same: hang, ring, and run.

      Your mention of streamers brought another question to mind: Do kids still decorate for homecoming dances and proms with crepe paper streamers? I’m sure they’d rather die, when things like this are on the market. Whimsical, simple, and fun apparently aren’t much in favor.

      I can tell you where some of the happiest flowers in the world are: in the cemetery on Broadway, in Galveston. The place is aglow right now, and a real treat. By the way — did you hear this week’s Prairie Home Companion? It was broadcast from the Grand, and was fun to hear. If you missed it, I think you’d enjoy the podcast.

      1. My grandmother was a research librarian – and loved to do all sorts of arts and crafts ( and very much into history ) so she probably saw them somewhere or perhaps made them as a child – they traveled extensively.
        Duncan the dog friend owner saw that broadcast – we were desperately trying to think up little sayings hoping they might get chosen for the opening. I need to venture to Galveston before the summer mobs.
        There used to be an old saying about raising kids “Don’t give them everything they want when growing up. If you do, what will they have to look forward to?” Sensible. I think part of the problem is that so many kids have been raised with unreal/unreasonable expectations of life and are now hitting the wall of reality without parents able to continue to support them in the style they were accustomed to. They feel everything should be given – and without strings.
        Crepe paper streamers were hints and promises of what was to come later in life. Something worthy in that.

  10. Thanks for the lovely May Day remembrances and celebration. It brought back a memory of the May Pole Dance I was in when I was a first grader in Houston. Never saw another one.

    1. So many people scattered across the country have mentioned their experience with Maypoles as children. They were part of life in Iowa, Minnesota, New York, and Illinois, and now you mention it being part of a Houston childhood. I wonder if it was the influence of European immigrant communities that helped to keep the celebrations popular? It makes sense.

      In any event, here’s a little reminder of those days from the “Bellaire Examiner. It’s hard to believe that was a half-century ago.

  11. I know that there is a May Day celebration of sorts in Europe, but I wasn’t aware that there was some kind of celebration in the U.S. It’s too bad we are far too busy to have fun anymore! I was born too late to join in all the fun :)

    1. It’s never too late to join in the fun — or, if you prefer, to create some of your own. I was quite shy as a child, so making and giving May baskets suited me well. I could make them as I pleased, and give them anonymously — although I did get caught a few times.

      We always wondered why our teachers never caught us, and never seemed to know where their baskets came from. Now that I’m older, I suspect I know the answer. They pretended not to know, so that we would have the fun of thinking we’d fooled them.

  12. “Stop binge-watching Netflix, and start binge-watching the world.” Great advice. (This spring, I deactivated Facebook, and all I can say is, free at last!) This time of year, the first music I reach for is Britten’s Spring Symphony. I’ve never mastered the art of whistling, so I must leave it to The Driving Boys: Here’s the text, which is actually an amalgam of two texts:

    The Driving Boy

    (“Whenas the Rye”/“The Driving Boy”
    (by George Peele, 1556–96/John Clare,
    1793–1864, from the Shepherd’s Calendar, May)

    When-as the rye reach to the chin,
    And chopcherry, chopcherry ripe within,
    Strawberries swimming in the cream,
    And schoolboys playing in the stream;
    Then O, then O, then O, my true love said,
    Till that time come again
    She could not live a maid.

    The driving boy, beside his team,
    Of May-month’s beauty now will dream,
    And cock his hat, and turn his eye
    On flower, and tree, and deep’ning sky;
    And oft burst loud in fits of song,
    And whistle as he reels along,
    Cracking his whip in starts of joy
    A happy, dirty, driving boy.

    1. I always learn something from you, Susan. I’ve never heard Britten’s “Spring Symphony,” and now I’ve had a first taste. It was a rather pleasant taste, too. Quite apart from my fondness for whistling, it was a good introduction to other parts of the composition, and you’re right: the driving boy fits right in.

      I was surprised to find W.H. Auden in the mix. I’ve always appreciated his poem, “A Summer Night,” but never realized it had been incorporated into a Britten score. The opening line, “Out on the lawn I lie in bed” always has had simple appeal. it’s a reminder of those hot, un-air-conditioned nights when we did, in fact, take to the lawn. A bed under the trees was pure childhood pleasure. My grownup version is sleeping in a cockpit.

      Vega’s conspicuous there, too — and perhaps even more noticeable than it is from the lawn.

        1. it’s not presumptuous at all, Susan. For one thing, a second read of a post like yours on the Spring Symphony always leads to new discoveries. I was particularly caught by this: “the second movement paints the darker side of Spring — the fading violets, rain and night…” Just this evening, I posted a poem grounded in that darker side. Reality isn’t always comfortable, but to deny its complexity also is to cut ourselves off from its richness. It’s good that Britten included it.

          Somehow, that reminds me of something else that tickled me on this second read — your point that approaching death often is knowable only after the fact. Now and then, I’ve bumped into people who ask some variant of, “If you knew you were going to die, how would you spend your remaining days?” Usually, I just grin and say, “If?”

          I will admit it’s sobering to think that, at best, I might have twenty springs left. I’d hate to waste them. Bouquets and Britten, all around!

  13. What a delightful memory of May baskets. The sweet practice is gone for sure these days along with so many other festive activities. I don’t need to enumerate the tech devices which capture the young audience and put simple pleasures on the backburner. I think it was the subterfuge which made us love it so much. Just think; knocking on someone’s door and then running away! It was a “secret friend” occasion.

    1. What a change we’ve wtinessed: from secret friends to Facebook friends. I’ve not thought of that before, but it’s intriguing to ponder. Quite apart from the issue of what makes a friend, there’s the business of secrets. Sharing secrets, keeping secrets — people with secrets in today’s world can seem strange rather than mysterious or self-possessed.

      And of course, with people constantly being counseled not to open their doors if they aren’t certain who’s there — a May basket could hang for days without being discovered. Poor, sad us.

  14. I, also, have memories of May baskets left on the door handle for my mother to discover. Somehow, the idea of any child anymore making anything out of construction paper seems not likely. But then I have no way of knowing that for sure.

    There isn’t much tenderness to be found in the world. Being rare makes it more special, perhaps, but I’d rather tenderness was commonplace.

    1. I do know that Walgreens still stocks real construction paper in a variety of colors, so there’s hope. It it were consigned to art supply stores, that would be one thing. Finding it at Walgreens suggests it’s still mainstream.

      Tenderness, kindness, graciousness: they’re all important.They always make life more enjoyable, and sometimes they make it bearable. None of them is a sign of weakness, despite what some people say. At least, I don’t think so.

  15. And Walgreens is the only store I have ever seen it, too…

    I had an employer once who told me, “Don’t mistake my kindness as stupidity”. Well, he wasn’t kind. He was stupid. And cruel. I should have said, “Don’t mistake my staying here as a sign of weakness. It’s stupidity.”

  16. This is a charming article. And the comments and memories are wonderful, too.
    The only time I’ve seen a maypole was at a Renaissance Faire when I was a kid. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, and concentrated on trying to maneuver the ribbons, so my kid sister would end up tied to the stake. But now I hope these customs return.

    1. I laughed and laughed at your story of dancing the maypole with gentle mayhem on your mind. The thought of someone getting tied to the pole never had occurred to me, but it’s a pretty amusing image. If “The Twilight Zone” still was accepting scripts, it might just fit.

      One person’s charming is another person’s boring, of course, but I’m with you in hoping we can preserve some of these customs — along with the qualities of graciousness, cooperation, and delight that underlie them. Dancing around a Maypole may seem anachronisitc, but it’s got it all over twerking.

  17. Beautiful month May, how nicely inspired you dear Linda, this is great post, you remind us all these beautiful things… Thank you dear Linda, Blessing and Happiness, and have a nice May days, Love, nia

    1. By the time May arrives, most people can be sure that winter is well and truly over. There may be a little surprise snow, but it doesn’t last, and the flowers are taking over. Enjoy your month of May, Nia. I hope it’s filled with beautiful things — flowers and kitties and sunshine, oh, my!

  18. Linda, thank you so much for this lovely post! My mom has been a huge May-Day fan all my life, and her scanty explanations on the customs and the reasoning behind them were insufficient for my mind to wrap around. Here, at last, is something in black-and-white (and glorious sound!) for me to grasp!

    Ever since I can remember, Mama would get us kids a May basket. Sometimes, it was hand-made; more often, it was bought. Sometimes, it contained flowers or candy; other times, it was a card and some cash. Regardless, it was a treat!

    She described the scene of people dancing around a May-pole with colored streamers, but I guess that tradition died out before I could experience it. Sad, how so many lovely things disappear.

    1. It’s wonderful that you had a mother who enjoyed the traditions, Debbie, and enjoyed passing them on to you through those baskets. I think May-day always has been among the simplest of our celebrations. A child picking a bouquet of dandelions or wild violets for a beloved parent or other relative captures the spirit of it all — celebrating the coming of spring — as well as anyone.

      Dancing and seasonal celebrations used to be a common thing. Dancing around the Christmas tree was common years ago, too. It still happens, but of course it’s more common in communities that have made a point of maintaining cultural traditions.

  19. I had always thought that Mayday celebrations and Maypole dancing was a peculiarly British thing so all this has come as a big surprise to me. Dancing round the Maypole still happens at the Primary School in our village (at least it did last year). Do you also have Morris Dancing in the States? In the UK these dancers are very often part of Mayday celebrations.

    There is also a saying: ‘Don’t cast a clout ’til May is out’. A clout is an old word for clothing but there is uncertainty as to whether the word ‘May’ in this instance refers to the month of May or the appearance of blossom on the Hawthorn shrub/tree, sometimes also called ‘May’. The thought behind the saying being wait before you are sure warmer weather is here to stay. A very wise saying as this year over in the UK snow was still falling in the north of England in the last few days of April, and now this week we have the first promise of temperatures reaching 70F.

    1. Morris dancing does take place here, but it seems to be most often seen at festivals like the Renaissance Faire. There is a group that calls themselves the Men of Houston Morris Dancers. I suspect Brits would turn their nose up at their antics, but they’re lots of fun. Some people do take it more seriously, of course, and there are various associations that promote Morris dancing.

      We have the same hawthorn here, although it’s introduced rather than native. What is native is our mayhaw. There are mayhaw festivals in east Texas, and there are places where you can stop at stands along the road to buy jellies and syrups.

      Our mayhaw and your hawthorn are in the same family. I just learned that “haw” is an obsolete word meaning “hedge.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says about “hawthorn”: “Old English hagaþorn, earlier hæguþorn “hawthorn, white thorn,” from obsolete haw “hedge or encompassing fence” It’s still morning, and I’ve learned something!

      1. ‘Haw’ is also the term for the berries of the Hawthorn over here, but Roses have ‘Hips’. What a fascinating word ‘Mayhaw’ is. Language is at times bewildering but also an extraordinary mix.

        1. Even when British English and American English meet, it can take some time to sort out meaning. I noticed an example of that in your recent post, when you spoke of “binning” something. It took me a few seconds to figure out that you meant: tossing, trashing, throwing out. What fun words are!

          1. And we haven’t begun to talk about car parts: hoods and trunks versus bonnets and boots. And perhaps we should steer well clear of any mention of men’s clothing.

  20. I have actually never heard about May-baskets. But it seems to be quite a lovely tradition. Here in Norway we have no special traditions to greet the month of May. I guess we just enjoy the brighter days and warmer temperatures. Another interesting and well researched post, Linda.

    1. I looked at a couple of articles about celebrations in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, and had to laugh at one. The writer said, “Of course there are no celebrations in May. It’s still too cold! We wait until midsummer’s eve.” I suspect that was partly tongue-in-cheek, since midsummer celebrations go back centuries, but it still was funny.

      May Day always was a special celebration. The only real point of the day was to surprise people with little remembrances. A child’s handful of plucked violets or an old woman’s offering of a lily both counted. It was so nice.

  21. Goodness, what an enchanting post!!! How I enjoyed it, especially learning a little about May baskets, I had no idea! Lovely that you got to enjoy them as a child, I feel like I missed out somehow!xxx

    1. I’d love to see the custom return. It was such a simple thing, and yet it brought so much pleasure to so many people. It was fun to “ring and run,” but it also was fun to take the baskets to people in the hospitals or nursing homes. It may be that some of that still takes place, but I’m just not in touch with it.

      The best part was that no one had to buy fancy flowers. A few violets, some lily of the valley, perhaps some stems of a flowering shrub would do perfectly well — and everyone had those. When all else failed, there always were dandelions!

  22. Somehow I never was involved in a trip around the Maypole nor did I ever exchange a May Basket. However, I do go a-Maying every spring as the wildflowers return. It’s a tossup between May for the flowers and October for the foliage as to my favorite month. But when you think about it, every month has something to offer. Nevertheless, Happy May, Linda.

    1. I was about to agree with you about every month having something to offer, Steve, but then I remembered August on the Gulf coast. I think I may have to get back to you on that one.

      Latitude makes some difference — I’d go with April and October for favorites — but there’s no question that both months offer a special kind of dynamism and change. And you’re right that nature herself offers up some pretty impressive baskets of May flowers. I’m sure that more than one person has adapted the familiar Christmas carol for use in springtime: “Here we come a-wandering among the leaves so green…” Happy wandering!

  23. I was most happy to hear and read the words of “Sing We and Chant It” working their way through the tune I know as “In Thee is Gladness.” There is a such an amazing convergence of deep joy in the two texts and tune both; it is not saccharine but rooted in promise and hope. Thanks for this! I also loved the photo of the maypole. I have vague memories of doing this as a child.

    1. Allen, I’d forgotten that hymn. I found that Johann Lindemann set the words of “In Dir ist Freude” to the tune of the same Giovanni Gastoldi ballettti used by Morley. It’s interesting to see Gastoldi’s tune taking those different directions, and wonderful that the translation of the German was so well done.

      You’re right about the absence of saccharine. When the taste of real joy is available, who needs it?

  24. Through all my years of public schooling, not one teacher ever mentioned May baskets or the May Pole, or any such related thing. However, I did teach my own children about these things and their ancient European beginnings. Thank you for the reminder! Happy Maying, Linda!

    1. That’s interesting, Wendy. I wonder if it’s because the May traditions are based in cultures that might not have been as well-represented where you grew up. I can’t remember particular projects in school classes, but I do remember taking the baskets to our teachers.

      I’m not surprised that you taught your kids about them. Given a choice between your schooling and what’s offered today, I know what I would choose. Of course, you’re a teacher at heart, so even if you hadn’t home schooled, I suspect you would have been supplementing their education all along the way. Heaven knows you’ve done a great job of teaching people about the importance of the wetlands.

    1. Thanks, Bob. It might amuse you to know that one of my earliest story books was about a duckling that brought a May basket to its mother. I hope May brings you some gifts, too — maybe some special ducklings.

  25. May is one of the prettiest months of the year. I love October, too. I guess it’s the transitions that take place in both that stirs the soul.

    1. We’re in agreement there, Bella, although I’d say April and October, since we’re just a little ahead of you down here. In either case, it is the changes that delight. You’ve got a window straight into it, with that pasture, and I suspect it won’t be long until the gardening and landscaping starts at your new place. It’s time.

    1. It seems that everyone has a special spot in their heart for our transitional seasons: April or May, and October. It’s such fun to see the changes taking place: to wait for famliar friends to appear, and be surprised by new ones. It’s a happy time — and so much spring music reflects that. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  26. I like chorals and cantatas. I agree so much that with spring one can feel Nature’s rebirth, and save all those memories in images and poems!

    1. The movement from winter to spring is more dramatic, and perhaps more welcome, in places that have seen months of cold and snow, but it’s no less wonderful for you and me. A little more subtle, perhaps, but still the changes are there to be seen. It does make people feel like singing, I think. At least, they seem to smile more: a very good thing, indeed.

    1. Isn’t that just the truth? I see you’re home. I’m anxious to read how the trip went. I suspect that you did a little rose-smelling of your own. I hope it was wonderful.

    1. Of course they do. The more often I read the phrase or think of it, the more I agree with its premise, too. The trick is remembering that such binge-watching isn’t equivalent to “looking for.” Searching and browsing are quite different occupations.

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