May Day: A Midwest Tradition


may dayI grew up in a tiny town in Southeast Nebraska. It wasn’t even big enough to have a stoplight, but what we lacked in size, we made up for in community. Our town was made up of citizens largely of Dutch ancestry who enthusiastically embraced the celebration of May Day.

From the time I was a little girl, I remember looking forward to the first of May, knowing that I would receive small baskets of flowers and treats from all of my friends and that I would, in turn, make and share baskets of my own.

Nobody had a lot of money, so our baskets were simple. Usually, they were crafted from recycled strawberry containers and had a homemade Rice Krispie treat tucked inside. Or a styrofoam cup filled with popcorn and peanuts. A pipe cleaner worked well as a handle, and you could usually expect to find a handwritten note bearing a happy message inside.

The name of the creator was conspicuously omitted because a big part of the fun was figuring out which basket came from which friend.

As we grew older, the fun escalated by adding a chase. When the baskets were delivered, the creator would ring the doorbell or knock on the door and run away. It was our job, as receivers, to chase down the deliverer. If we were fast enough to catch them, they had to give us a kiss. I don’t actually remember any kissing; the threat of it was terrifying enough to keep us moving fast.

Things have changed since I was a child. Not only do I live in a far bigger community, but I do not let my kids run around town unattended. I’m afraid of giving out homemade goodies for fear of exciting a food allergy, and May Day is not a universally celebrated holiday in our town.

But the spirit of the holiday remains important to me.

may basketWhile I can’t replicate the experience I had growing up for my children, I hope to help my kids experience the joy that comes from sharing treats with others.

I hope to let them see how important community is. And I hope to teach them that, sometimes, the simple gestures of kindness can be the most powerful ones.

I hope for these things because the idea that I am connected to the people who live in my community simply because we live near each other is a beautiful thought. I hope for them because I am so often guilty of rushing home, completely exhausted, and making a beeline into my garage, avoiding any interaction with those who live around me.

May Day reminds me to reach out.

The simple act of making baskets forces me to slow down and remember those who live nearby. A little candy in a cup lets my neighbors know I am thinking about them, even in this busy world where we all have so much stress and so many obligations.

My family doesn’t over-do it, but we do make a handful of baskets to share with friends and neighbors every year. Nothing inside is homemade; it is all store bought and clearly labeled. We usually buy brightly-colored plastic cups and stickers. My artist Cora decorates the cups with care, but we typically don’t bother with handles.

I stand on my porch while the kids run up and down the street, placing the baskets on our neighbors’ porches. I’m not sure they always knock, but they definitely run as they return to our house, faces covered in smiles.

We load up the minivan and drive to deliver a few baskets to friends who live further away. When we return home, we can expect to find several baskets on our doorstep. I usually let the kids indulge in some treats before supper, because it’s May Day, after all.

We have a fun evening, and enjoy our tradition, even though it’s not the same experience I had as a child. When they’re grown, I hope my kids have fun memories of May Day. More importantly, I hope they remember how special it is to spend time making others happy and that small actions that make people feel special have the power to build community.  

Do you celebrate May Day? What are your favorite memories of the holiday?


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