MAY BASKETS: decorative baskets hung on the doorknob as a sign of anonymous friendship

Life was simple in my hometown.   It was a village of about 8,000 people with local industry, traditional values, and post World War II patriotism.   Parades on national holidays were festive and well attended.  Everyone (it seemed) went to church on Sundays, except the Seventh-Day Adventists who went on Saturday.   Doors were seldom locked.  Dogs roamed freely and were fed by neighbors.  And kids rode their balloon-tired bicycles without restrictions on distance.  There were numerous Boy Scout, Girl Scout, Cub Scout and Brownie troops and there was competition to join.   Most men were Volunteer Firemen.  Few women worked outside the home.  School was respected and the whole town turned out for band, orchestra and choir concerts.   Local sports were the NBA and NFL of our day.  We had two local newspapers daily and everybody I knew subscribed to Grit.  The police were friendly and the mayor bought ice cream for kids at the local drug store soda fountains.  I was a soda jerk at one of them.

For the weeks prior to May 1 our house was abuzz with activity.  Card tables filled two rooms.  Ice cream containers were washed, dried, and stacked everywhere.   And every evening around those tables  our entire family produced dozens and dozens of May Baskets.  There were friends of the family who assisted also.  It was an industry that churned out brightly-colored baskets in anticipation of the First of May.

Each basket was covered with colorful crepe paper, cut in strips which were then scored every two inches.  Scissors cut the scores about an inch into the strips of crepe paper.  Using your pointers and your thumbs, the tabs created were twisted to create a flower-like twist.  Sometimes two colors were done together, but mostly the strips were single colors.   A dab of white paste on the end of a strip secured it to the paper ice cream container and the strip was wound carefully around the cup in layers until the entire cup was covered.  A pipe cleaner was attached to make a handle and those in the room “oohed and aahed” at each finished product, as if it was even more beautiful than the last one displayed.   When the project was completed the living room was filled with a garden of May Baskets waiting to be filled with gum drops and jelly beans.  No chocolate.  It melted and ruined the baskets.

On the night before May Day, right at dusk,  we scattered throughout the extended neighborhood hanging May Baskets on the doors of friends, newly-arrived neighbors, and … especially … older people who lived alone.   The idea was to hang the basket, ring the doorbell, and run so that the recipient didn’t know from whom the basket came.   Sometimes there were numerous baskets on the porch at the same time.  From a distance we would watch the residents open the door, show amazement at the gift, and look around to see who had brought it.  There was a kind of ritual to the event.

I remember one year, in particular, when a family moved into one of the larger houses down the street just before May Day. They had come from a city nearby where their house had burned and they had lost everything.  They had five children, one of whom would become a classmate of mine.   The family had never heard of May Baskets.   We watched the mother sob as she gathered the baskets and shared them with the children.   I’ve never forgotten the feeling that filled me as I watched the kids jump up and down with glee and the parents hug each other, knowing that they were home again.

I doubt that May Day is observed in that town anymore.  The world has changed, and so has my hometown.   Industry left around the time I graduated from High School, moving south to avoid the Labor Unions.   Drugs became a replacement industry for that town.  Small business closed on Main Street and were replaced with nail parlors, second hand stores, and discount stores.  When driving through the town you can’t help but notice the changes.

Every year when May Day rolls around I find myself waxing nostalgic, remembering the days of anonymous affection to friends and strangers which was demonstrated by those baskets hanging on peoples’ doors.   When a town “grows up” it isn’t always for the better.

Photo Credit: Speckled Egg

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