An old New England tradition that perhaps deserves reviving is the giving of a May basket on May Day. It was popular among children, especially in northern New England, during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
Children made small homemade baskets or used available ones. They filled them with treats: candy, cookies, flowers. Then they’d hang them on the doorknob or leave them on the doorstep of a friend, a sweetheart or a favorite relative. The custom was to knock, yell “May Basket” and then run. If the recipient caught the giver, he or she was entitled to a kiss.
Louisa May Alcott wrote about May baskets in her 1880 children’s book, Jack and Jill. "Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark," she wrote. She described 'droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another's arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly.
"Such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling—it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener," wrote Alcott.
In 1889, a young man in Taunton, Mass., got up very early and walked a mile and a half to hang a basket on his sweetheart's door. When he got there he found another basket from another young man already hanging there.
May Basket Misadventure
Renee DesRoberts, writing for the Maine Memory Network, told the story of another May basket adventure that went awry at the Biddeford Pool in 1917.
A Mrs. T. K. Niedringhaus, wife of a St. Louis railroad financier, was spending the night at the Main Street home of Mrs. Fanny C. Foster, another summer resident.
The women heard a knock on the door and,
..."fearing burglars, the house dog was loosed and he chased whoever the party was across the golf links and far away."
The next day, the women discovered two May Baskets hung on the door by children. As an apology for the chase, each woman held a party for the children.
An item in a Biddeford newspaper concluded, "There are those among the children who aver that they would gladly be chased across the golf links again for another such good time."
Grace and Edna
Dear old chum –
Bless your heart! You
don’t forget me, do you? A May Basket! Why
it made me a little girl again.
It got here in wonderfully good condition
nothing smashed – nothing spilled. And its
perfectfully dear so sweet outside as in –
Hallmark Gets Into the Act
Hallmark tried to bring back the tradition -- in fact, it's still trying. In 1954, the company advertised ‘May Day Baskets’ that come in '15 colorful designs -- five different designs in each package -- and can be assembled easily without scissors or glue.' You could find them in ‘the fine stores where Hallmark cards are sold, and the price was just 50 cents.’
In Roots and Branches: Or growing up in Maine, Jane Rozelle recalled making May baskets:
…one of the"funest" things of spring to do, May Basket time! May 1st all the kids in the neighborhood would be figuring how to make a pretty May basket. It usually started with crepe paper, scissors, maybe a little box, glue and many other ideas.
To just use crepe paper, use two pieces approximately a foot square, or a size that you like, fold it so there was a middle point, keep folding it to make a pointed v. Then cut little v's out of the side and when you open it up you'll have a sort of lacy bag with the top sort of a handle. If you had a little box then you could paste different pieces around the side and braid some paper to make a handle.
The May basket, of course. required filling. "You must be prepared with candy on hand and now you're ready to put some candy into the basket you chose," wrote Rozelle. Children used cookies or fruit as well.
(Or you can find out where to buy a basket made by a Maine Indian here.)
Rozelle recalled how the children would gather in the early morning when it was still dark, hang their baskets and scatter. “Many kids would get hurt the darker it was, she wrote. “Often the real bad hurt was when someone run into a clothes line and it caught them in the throat.”
This story about the May basket was updated in 2018.