My mother called it May-basket Day, and for a good many years, that was what I thought it was all about. The ancient Romans celebrated that day in honor of Flora, goddess of fruit and flowers. Later, in England, the day was dedicated to Robin Hood, and celebrated with festivities which included Maypole dancers and the election of a local Queen of the May. In the U.S. It was celebrated as a Labor holiday between the years 1886 and 1894. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, it became a day for military pageants and parades in many countries.
Somewhere in there, no doubt from the influence of the Roman and English observances, the tradition of the May-basket arose. There are different versions of even that dainty tradition in which sweets and tiny bouquets of flowers are presented to friends and neighbors. Initially, I believe, the idea was for the children of the community to bring these simple gifts to the elderly members of the town, particularly the women. Eventually, the children began delivering the treats to their friends as well, and the delivery became a sort of game where the basket was delivered anonymously, the bell or knocker sounded, and the child would run and hide, peeking to watch the recipient come to the door and find the surprise. For some reason, it was considered bad luck for the child to be caught in the act.
I’m not aware that children take part in that little tradition much these days, though I am aware that some teachers and youth organizations follow a new version by delivering treats or flowers to residents of nursing homes; often tiny, live marigold plants which the children started from seeds in paper cups. This is a nice experience in learning and kindness that the children surely gain much from, as well as brightening the day for nursing home residents, who later see their plants blooming in a flower bed outside their window. But it is hardly the gleeful game and celebration that it started out to be so many centuries ago.
Somewhere around the end of April, my sisters and I would arrive home from school one spring day to find our mother, not busy with the endless chores that kept her occupied, but dressed in slacks and sweater, armed with empty bread sacks and a lidded jar of water, and encouraging us to go change out of our school dresses. We were headed to the woods a few miles from town, a place where we often picnicked or went exploring along the creek that emptied into the Des Moines River. Mother would remind us that it would soon be May-basket Day, and we needed to pick wildflowers to add to our miniature baskets of treats just before we delivered them.
Quite innocently, I believed the search for Sweet Williams, bluebells, and violets was the true reason for those excursions. Little did I know that, while we searched the sunny clearings for dainty blooms, Mother was foraging through musky woodlands, peering under bushes and around dead trees in search of mushrooms. It didn’t even dawn on me when our supper that evening included a big platter of mushrooms, coated in beaten egg and cracker crumbs and fried in butter. She’d casually mention that she happened upon them while looking for wildflowers, but I never suspected it was her main reason for the trip in the first place. In more recent years, I’ve begun to wonder if she found a few of those mushrooms earlier in the day while we were in school. It seems that the platter of mushrooms on the supper table held quite a few more tasty morsels than she had brought to the car as we were putting our flowers into the jar of water for the ride home.
After supper, Mother would haul out the big wallpaper sample book, scissors and Dad’s desk stapler, and we’d set about picking out the prettiest sheets of paper to make our May-baskets. There were three basic models we made every year. The most complex, and the one that required a whole sheet of paper from the sample book, was a version of the four-section “cootie catcher” we’d learned to make from a school friend. The other two designs were a simple cone (we could make two from a page) and a double cone. We made this last one by folding a square of paper diagonally, then pulling the folded points together so that each half formed a cone shape. The points were then stapled together and a handle added, just in case there was a doorknob to hang it on. I liked this one best, because we could put popcorn and jelly beans in one side, and flowers fresh from the vase in the other without getting water on the treats.
This year, it’s been a different kind of spring. The usual wildflowers have bloomed and gone to seed, the mushrooms are a memory, and nobody seems excited about the arrival of May. Probably because we thought it happened a month ago.