By Vea Anna Hooker
The earliest form of May Day seems to be the Festival of Flora, during the Roman Republican era. Flora was the goddess of flowers and linked to spring, fertility, and youth. The festival lasted for several days at the end of April and first part of May. Forms of celebration included drinking, the wearing of flowers, lightweight, brightly colored garments, and farces and mimes, especially those of a bawdy nature. It also has ties to Beltane, an Irish holiday that marked the beginning of summer. Rituals were preformed to protect the cattle, crops and people and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled and the people and cattle would walk around and even jump over the fires or embers. They would have feasts and decorate a May Bush with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. If you washed your face in the morning dew on May 1, it was believed you would have beauty and stay youthful.
As Europe became Christianized, pagan holidays were absorbed into Christian holidays or lost religious significance. May Day became a secular holiday, with its celebrations including the gathering of wildflowers to weave into decorations that were often used to crown a May king and queen, as well as for decorating a May tree or Maypole. People then danced around the tree. These rites were probably intended to ensure fertility, and its celebrations involved joy and light-hearted fun in the outdoors as the warmer weather of spring and summer began.
In America, the Puritans of New England considered the celebrations for May Day to be licentious and pagan so the holiday never became an important part of American culture. In later times, it became a popular tradition to give May baskets – small baskets filled with flowers or sweets. These were usually given anonymously to friends and neighbors. This tradition had all but died out by the later part of the twentieth century.
On a personal note, as a child growing up in Iowa, we would prepare construction paper cones with a handle and try finding a few flowers to put in them. Since Iowa has intense winters, by May 1, about all we could find was a few dandelions and a handful of violets. We would usually fill the bottom of the cone with popcorn; add a couple candies and two or three of our pitiful flowers. We were encouraged, by our sweet mother, to hang them on the doors of elderly neighbors, knock and run like the wind. Simple pleasures, but we took so much joy in the doing.