501 Life Magazine | Petals and posies on the porch
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Petals and posies on the porch

A May Day celebration at Central College for Women in 1915. (Photo courtesy of the University of Central Arkansas Archives)

by Vivian Lawson Hogue

My first-grade year at Central Grade School had many events that I have not forgotten, although in some instances I have tried. 

It is not with pride that I say I often sat on a stool in the corner during math class, only because arithmetic, as it was called then, was not my friend. Not then, not now. I fidgeted, drew pictures and even once cut off the ends of the pigtails of the girl in front of me. I wasn’t a vandal. I just had these cute little scissors and thought maybe I was giving her a new “do.” I had pigtails myself, so my thinking process is yet unknown. 

I remember the monkey bars, especially in sizzling summer and frigid winter days as the iron bars either burned or froze hands and knee-backs. Girls wore dresses to school, and that doubled the trouble. Aside from my brief encounter with hairstyling, I enjoyed coloring the mimeographed sheets and work books. I was fond of reading and writing, so there were no stool-in-the-corner times there. 

On holidays we kept construction paper companies in business by making decorations and cards for our parents for Halloween, Christmas and Easter. But there was a special day in particular that was my favorite. There will be many who never had the pleasure, but in peacetime, and in the more innocent America of 1949, we celebrated! An observance of May Day on May 1 brought out the scissors and glue and, of course, more construction paper.

Here I must differentiate between two quite different “May Days.” One still observed followed an 1886 social movement in Chicago to regulate the length of work days. Its origins were in the British Industrial Revolution, where child labor was common in factories, and adults might have 16-hour workdays during a six-day week for pennies a day. Such conditions existed in America’s Industrial Revolution as well.  

However, the other May Day, sometimes called “May Basket Day,” is also still celebrated worldwide since the 1800s in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Canada and many other countries. America’s participation has dwindled.

Before this spring day arrived, our teachers told us that May Day was nearing, with its purpose to simply celebrate the end of winter and the approaching warming of the earth for new growth. They would spread out the construction paper and we could choose the colors we wanted to make a May basket. We cut the paper into strips and weaved them in a lattice pattern, gluing the ends. Four sides were folded up, a band put around the top, a handle attached and in our opinions, we had beautiful baskets. They were taken home with the intent of placing cut flowers in them and secretly hanging them on someone’s doorknob.  

“Tussie-mussies,” or cone-shaped baskets, could also be easily made and decorated with glued-on paper doilies. Holes were punched in two of the upper sides to hold ribbon for hanging on a doorknob.  

In our town, this notable occasion in the early 1900s was a major production held at the Central College for Women. It was a large, community event with floats covered with handmade flowers, and all the girls wore white hosiery and shoes with ankle-length white dresses formally embellished with ruffles, silk, lace and floral motifs, with more flowers in their hair.  

The main event was focused on the May Pole from which hung streamers covered with flowers. The young women danced around the pole, twisting the garlands around it as they circled. Public schools across the nation often did this on a much smaller scale, usually with crepe paper. 

The celebration has a long history, from Victorian times when real baskets, hats, glass or tin pitchers, or even shoes, were “vases” to be secretly placed on a porch. They would contain flowers, of course, but also candies, cakes or toys. It was even a way a young lady could show her attention to a young man and vice versa. The elderly or the tired mother with many children had a day-brightener, knowing that someone was thinking of them. Children have even hung them on the White House doors and been greeted by the first ladies.

We can only guess what caused this wonderful day to fade away as we observe how our country yearns for the peace, pride and patriotism it once enjoyed. It is interesting that so many countries of varied government styles still celebrate May Day, and America doesn’t.  

Spring comes regardless, though, so it seems that within ourselves we should still allow a bit of congeniality to display what used to be us. We should re-learn the excitement behind that once-popular spring event, for there are many who could find joy in discovering a “May Basket” hanging on their door.