A May Day Array

My grandmother used to talk about the May Day celebrations that they would have at school when she was a young girl. Stories of May Day queens and crowns, posies, dancing around the maypole and with flower boughs were some of her favorite to share with me while we worked in the garden together in the early days of spring. It seemed almost mythical to me, as May Day was not something we celebrated or talked about much at all during my years. Sometime in the last century, May Day stopped being a widely celebrated holiday in America. There are pockets around the country that still celebrate in small towns, but it is quickly becoming a forgotten holiday.

From the beginning, Brad, Carolyn, and I have been quietly behind everything here at Heirloom Art Co. and one of our most compelling goals is to see a renaissance of deeply meaningful traditions that encourage human connection. While we sell objects, what we really want is to encourage interaction, using an object as merely beautiful motivation. While we are perhaps overly connected with our technology, our lives are no longer woven together by the small and simple interactions of the day to day. This past year has made it even harder to connect with each other face-to-face and soul-to-soul as we have tried to stay safe by wearing masks, ordering grocery delivery, shopping online, doing online or home school, working from home, and limiting travel and gathering. Not going to lie, in many ways, my creative introvert soul has been thriving in this environment, but there is a part of me that knows I am missing out on important human connections. 

It is for this reason that we have decided that we want to bring May Day back and we need your help to do it. Are you willing to help? Are you ready to dance and sing and share? Let's begin by learning a bit about its origins and its traditions. Pick and choose what works for you. Start small, but find ways to let others be a part of how you choose to celebrate.

May Day is one of the oldest celebrations of spring, originally celebrated as Floralia, a festival to celebrate Flora, goddess of flowers and all things that grow. For the Gaelic this festival was known as Beltane in which livestock was blessed. The cattle were led to jump over blazing fires to make sure their milk could not be spoiled by the faerie kin. I would be remiss if I did not mention that in 1889 May 1st was designated as an International Workers Day or International Labour Day, which muddied many of the traditional customs that were used to celebrate the spring festivals. However, many countries in the world still celebrate May Day and have their own rich heritage of traditions. 

Now, I want to share with you a few traditions that I have experienced and others that I have only read about. I was unbelievably blessed with three years living in Europe after I graduated from university. Nearly two years in Italy and just over a year in Scotland. The opportunities were unexpected but I will cherish the memories forever and so I will share what I can with you of May Day's joy.

In Italy, it is a day when everyone too to the outdoors to feast al fresco in parks and piazzas with open air concerti. One of the years I lived there, I was invited to an Italian barbecue and we made our own sausages to roast over the fire. It was also artichoke season in Sicily and we fried the artichokes outdoors and spent the day in the sun. It was delicious and beautiful.

However, the second year I was in a new and unfamiliar city and decided to go to the town center to explore. It had been a rainy day, but the evening had cleared. Not realizing the date as anything special I happened upon a May Day celebration that runs through my memories like a technicolor film. The city is built like spokes in a wheel, each street leading to the center. As I walked into the central piazza, the sun was just beginning to set over the sea, creating a rosy glow over the old buildings and cobblestone streets. There was music and laughter before I could see anything. The piazza was filled with people eating fresh fruits, cheeses, and gelato sold at small vendors with striped canopies. There were also stands selling a myriad of fresh flowers and winding flower crowns.There was a parade of flower-crowned children and a tiny queen being carried along the small winding streets to the old castle ruins near the sea. There was an old fashioned puppet show (imagine Punch and Judy) and the roaring laughter. Lights were strung between the streets and music seemed to come from all over. It was utterly magical, and something I wish everyone I know could experience.

The following year I found myself in Scotland, on May Day. I woke up to a sweet delivery on the doorstep, a posy of flowers hanging from the handle of the door from a friend. Posies are often exchanged among friends and lovers to celebrate May Day. The Victorians were well versed in the language of flowers, and chose their blooms carefully to communicate messages of love and friendship.

Later in the day, I was walking through the farmers fields and along the Tweed River only to be met with a group of equestrian riders from the next town over bedecked with flowers and costumed garb. I learned that in the Scottish Borders there are several celebrations, beginning May 1st, and continuing throughout the summer known as "common ridings" dating back to the 13th century. Regular groups would go out riding to patrol the village limits for raiding Englishmen. In spring there were often raids following lambing and calving seasons when flocks and herds were at their largest. Common ridings or "festival ridings" as they are called now, happen through out the border region to celebrate each town, and they also crown a "braw lad" and "braw lass" for the festival.

Throughout Europe there are a variety of local May Day celebrations including: hobby horse festivals, bonfire leaping, flower boat rituals, crowns of flowers, poesies in paper cones, theatricals, bread baking, maypoles, and morris dancing with bells and handkerchiefs.

For many years, many of these same traditions were also observed in North America. While writing this, my dad stopped by my house, and I asked him if he celebrated May Day in school. He said that it was always one of the best days of the year, each class getting a turn to dance around the maypole and eating a special May Day cake. In class he said they would make paper cones to deliver on their way home from school.  I am genuinely curious, do your schools and towns still celebrate? 

Several years ago, I asked my dad to make me a Maypole that we pull out each year for our own small celebration. He used the trunk of a young tree that had to be cut down and inserted a metal hook at the top. Before raising the pole, we tie loads of ribbons to the hook. We use our tree stand (the same one we use at Christmas!) to hold the beribboned tree trunk. It's always a bit of a learning process to learn to weave the ribbons held by each dancer.  

This year we have created a collection of items to help you experience and enjoy May Day. We designed these paper cones, featuring the artwork of Swedish artist Carl Larsson, so that you can deliver posies of freshly picked flowers to your loved ones on May Day. Each sheet contains four paper cones and handles, printed dual sided on heavy matte paper, that simply need to be cut, glued, and filled with wildflowers or a few blooms from the garden. They are perfect to hang on a door handle and simply remind someone that they are loved.

We even have some lovely golden crowns made of embossed paper and ribbons to crown your own Queen of May. You can also find these Dutch flower chains at our sister store, Blickenstaff's. Or weave your own flower crowns! 

The collection is all of our favorite floral items including our miniature flower press, German flower children, floral posters. We hope that you find a few small ways to celebrate May Day with those around you. Deliver flowers to those who can't join you.  

April 08, 2021 — Chelsey Newbould

Comments

Janet Nicole

Janet Nicole said:

For my youngest daughter’s fifth birthday, May 4, I made the maypole of MY dreams to celebrate her birthday with all her little friends. Flower crowns, pastel ribbons to hold and skip around the maypole entertained the happy group for a long while. We followed with a picnic and she, now 20, still remembers this May Day birthday with heartfelt recollections. May 1st, what a lovely time of year to simply celebrate!

Linda

Linda said:

Lovely post!
Catholic school children in America celebrate May with the crowning of a statue of Our Lord’s mother, Mary. The most recent First Communion students wear their finest clothes: beautiful white communion dresses and white gossamer veils for the girls, and handsome dress suits of black and navy for the boys. A girl and boy are selected to process down the aisle of the church and to place a crown of flowers on a statue of Our Lady. It’s a cherished custom that is generations old. My mother, who will soon be 89, remembers well the May Crowning ceremonies of her childhood at Sacred Heart Academy in Waco, Texas.

Susan Mercurio

Susan Mercurio said:

My mother has an English heritage, and she taught me and my sister about May Day.

We used to make May Day baskets from construction paper, fill them with flowers, and hang them on our neighbors’ door handles.

I doubt that the neighbors understood what they were, but I guess in time they got used to finding baskets of flowers on their doors every spring.

Hudson

Hudson said:

Thank you for your lovely story. I did May Day celebrations in Florida while young. My Scout troop also participated. Two of my children went to private kindergarten and were taught to May pole dance and deliver flowers to neighbors’ doors. But the holiday does seem to have gone away! I have tomato starts and think I will share a few on May 1st .

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