May Day, May Poles, May Baskets & Family Traditions

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott reminisces about his family’s traditions of celebrating May and the coming of spring, and researches old newspapers to find that these traditions go back a long way.

photo of a maypole at Archer School for Girls (former Eastern Star Home) in Brentwood, Los Angeles, California

Photo: maypole at Archer School for Girls (former Eastern Star Home) in Brentwood, Los Angeles, California. Credit: Jengod; Wikipedia.

Tra la! It’s May! The lusty month of May!

—Guinevere

Guinevere’s words are from the wonderful play and movie, Camelot. May brings the flowers that April’s showers promised us, and while the traditions of May baskets and May poles may have been more popular with our ancestors than they are with us, they still do exist.

My Memories of May

My personal memories of May Day, due to my age, tend to focus on the U.S.S.R. and the Cold War. While my sisters had visions of May poles and May baskets in their heads, I could only think of the specter of the “Red Menace” that was on display in articles such as this one from a 1950 newspaper.

Soviet Might Seen in May Day Show, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 2 May 1950

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 2 May 1950, page 1

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May Pole Showdowns

As I continued researching May Day and its celebrations in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, the very earliest mention I could find was this 1725 article. Because of the Cold War connection in my mind between May Day and confrontation, I was not surprised that this article mentioned not only a May pole—but also an altercation. It seems that in Barford, a ”neighboring Gentleman” suspected the local May pole had been stolen from his woods, and came with a “large Posse” to get it back. However, the locals “rose upon them” and gave the posse “an entire Defeat, and sent them back with many broken Heads.”

article about a dispute over a May pole, American Weekly Mercury newspaper article 11 November 1725

American Weekly Mercury (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 11 November 1725, page 3

Luckily, a bit later in Pennsylvania as reported in this 1798 newspaper article, cooler heads prevailed in a village-wide dispute over a May pole. It seems half the village wanted one and half did not. The matter was eventually taken up by the local magistrate who had this to say:

You grave folks who are against a May pole shall have none—but you gay folks who are for a May pole may set up one as soon as you like.

The result was:

The whole village were struck with the equity of their magistrate, and peace and good-will were instantly restored.

Much better than “many broken heads” I’d say!

article about a dispute over a May pole, Federal Gazette newspaper article 19 February 1789

Federal Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 February 1789, page 2

Family Tradition of May Baskets

Fortunately, in our home May baskets reigned and did so in peace! My mother and maternal grandmother, who lived with us, would magically have a homemade May basket appear on the door knob of my sisters’ bedrooms on May Day morning.

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It seems homemade May baskets were the norm for a long, long time, as shown by this 1894 newspaper article. I especially enjoyed that the first line of the article was this:

When I was a little girl there was a pretty custom in fashion among children which I do not now hear much about.

Gee, I guess some folks were worried about this lovely tradition fading out way back in 1894! I am glad the tradition did continue and, as you can read in this article, there are directions for making your own May basket that you can still use today for your celebrations.

May Baskets, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 29 April 1894

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 29 April 1894, page 20

Until our children married and moved out on their own, my wife always made sure that those handmade baskets continued to mysteriously appear each May Day—and now I do the same for her.

Do you have any special family May Day memories and do you still celebrate May Day in your home? What are your family traditions to celebrate spring?

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Written by Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. Scott specializes in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the United Kingdom, and Italy. In addition to GenealogyBank.com, Scott has been recently published by Ohio Genealogy Society, National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, SaveEllisIsland.com, MyHeritage.com, and Greater Cleveland Genealogical Society. He was a presenter at the 2012 World Congress of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in Slovakia. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page at OnwardToOurPast and on his website/blog at OnwardToOurPast.

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About Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. Scott specializes in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the United Kingdom, and Italy. In addition to GenealogyBank.com, Scott has been recently published by Ohio Genealogy Society, National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, SaveEllisIsland.com, MyHeritage.com, and Greater Cleveland Genealogical Society. He was a presenter at the 2012 World Congress of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in Slovakia. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page at OnwardToOurPast and on his website/blog at OnwardToOurPast.

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