Mayday, Mayday—The Lost History of May Poles and May Baskets in Iowa

Remember the fun, colorful tradition of creating homemade May baskets? (I do.) If you’re a certain age, you may even remember dancing around the May pole. (I don’t). All were once beloved rites of spring here in Iowa and across America.

In many Midwestern communities, May Day celebrations were a highlight of the year. As I researched my book “Calhoun County,” which showcases the history of small-town and rural Iowa through the eyes of those who lived it, I came across a unique picture. Thelma Basler, a member of the senior class of 1935, was elected May Queen by the Lohrville High School student body. In addition to voting for the May Queen

Lohrville.May.Queen low res

Lohrville High School May Queen, Thelma Basler, 1930s, Lohrville, Iowa

, students decorated the school flagpole in honor of May Day and delivered May baskets to friends.

While these May 1 customs have largely faded from American pop culture, they still endure in pockets of Iowa and beyond, where some of my friends’ children still enjoy making May baskets filled with treats. I started thinking—where did these May Day traditions come from? A little research hinted at something less wholesome than childhood craft projects and school celebrations.

Taming a raucous rite of spring
May pole dancing, for example, dates back to ancient pagan cultures in Europe. Each spring, people would erect a May pole, often of cedar or birch, and dance around it, typically weaving colorful ribbons around the pole as they went, to ensure a fruitful planting season.

An obvious phallic symbol, a May pole was strongly associated with fertility. After the European continent became Christianized, the more raucous elements of May Day celebrations were toned down, but the May pole dance and May baskets survived in a more G-rated form. These customs were carried to America, where they endured well into the twentieth century.

May Day memories from small-town Iowa
In my home town of Lake City, Iowa, Jolene Schleisman recalls weaving ribbons around a May pole in the gymnasium/lunchroom at Lincoln Elementary School in the 1960s. This spring ritual had ended by the time I attended Lincoln Elementary in the 1980s, although I did take square-dancing lessons in

May baskets Jolene Schleisman 2016

Homemade May baskets created in Lake City, Iowa

music class, a tradition that has now gone the way of the May pole.

During my time at Lincoln Elementary, I did get to experience the joy of making May baskets filled with candies and popcorn to give to friends and family. In the 2015 article “A Forgotten Tradition: May Basket Day,” NPR explained the phenomenon this way:

“As the month of April rolled to an end, people would begin gathering flowers and candies and other goodies to put in May baskets to hang on the doors of friends, neighbors and loved ones on May 1. In some communities, hanging a May basket on someone’s door was a chance to express romantic interest. If a basket-hanger was espied by the recipient, the recipient would give chase and try to steal a kiss from the basket-hanger.”

In Lake City, homemade May baskets became a fundraiser for the ladies of the Presbyterian Church in the mid-twentieth century. Church members including Fanny Howell, principal of Lake City High School from 1928 to 1935, made May baskets out of small paper milk cartons (washed and sanitized with bleach). The ladies decorated each May basket with colorful crepe paper and attached pipe cleaners for handles.

The cheerful baskets were displayed in the front window of McIntyre Furniture store on Center Street, where the smaller baskets could be purchased for a penny apiece. Buyers could then fill the baskets with the treats of their choice and deliver them to friends around town.

Long gone are the penny May baskets, McIntyre Furniture, Fanny Howell and many of the traditions that once defined May 1 in communities across Iowa and beyond. In one respect, however, I’m glad that some major company has not rediscovered May Day, only to mar its simplicity with commercial baskets, cards and trinkets. There’s still something to be said for simplicity and tradition.

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