A May Day basket filled with flowers hangs on a door handle in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A May Day basket filled with flowers hangs on a door handle in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Celebrate May Day with flowers instead of riots this year

How to keep alive the innocent tradition of giving May baskets with your children.

I miss the May Days of my childhood.

And no, I’m not talking about riots in downtown Seattle.

The May Day I know from my Nebraska upbringing, is an old-timey rite of spring in which you fill baskets with goodies to secretly be left on the doorsteps of neighbors and loved ones on May 1. Not many celebrate it today, but it was a popular ritual generations ago. My parents and grandparents all made May Day baskets as children.

May Day also is an important day for organized labor, because International Workers’ Day is May 1. I didn’t find that out until I was 15 years old, when my family moved from the Midwest to Snohomish County. Unaware of recent May Day mayhem in Seattle, I made May baskets for my friends at Jackson High School — and thoroughly confused them. I stopped making them after that.

Also, May Days have pagan roots. Ancient Europeans traditionally held festivals to mark the return of spring. The ancient festival’s customs live on in Europe and America today, although now practiced in a secular manner, such as maypole dancing and wildflower crowns.

(If you were wondering, May Day has nothing to do with the “Mayday!” distress call. That comes from the French word m’aider, which means “help me.”)

But the May Day I grew up with isn’t unique to the Midwest, and hasn’t died out altogether. Some folks are keeping the tradition alive right here in Snohomish County.

Everett’s Emily Olson filled baskets with flowers and left them for her neighbors on Rucker Avenue when she was a kid, too. She was just as surprised as I was to find out that not everyone celebrated May Day with baskets.

Her parents, John and Mary Kate Olson, celebrated May Day as kids and passed the tradition on to their three children — Daniel, Emily and Andrew. John, 57, grew up in Pullman; Mary Kate, 56, spent her childhood in San Francisco.

“Both my parents had done it, so I thought that everybody did May Day baskets,” said Emily Olson, who is now 22. “I remember telling my friends that we dropped off baskets for May Day, and they were like ‘What’s that? Why do you do that?’”

If you want to revive the May Day tradition with your kids this year, then You Gotta Try This: Make May Day baskets for the neighborhood.

Here’s how it works: Children make baskets out of paper, boxes, cups, etc., and then fill them with flowers, candy, popcorn, trinkets, etc. The giver either hangs the basket on the doorknob or leaves it on the porch, then rings the doorbell and runs away — sort of a ding and dash. You don’t want to be caught leaving the anonymous gifts. Traditionally, if the recipient caught up with the giver, they could steal a kiss. In the #MeToo era, that part of old-school May Day probably is best forgotten.

The Olson kids picked flowers from their yard and wrapped them in cone-shaped baskets made of paper. They drew flowers and wrote “Happy May Day!” in marker on the paper cones.

“We would ring the doorbell and run to hide behind hedges and bushes,” Emily Olson said. “We would watch them open the door and look around and then find the May Day basket. It was fun to be mystery givers for a day and try not to get caught.”

Most of the baskets in my childhood neighborhood were made out of a paper or plastic cup with a pipe-cleaner for a handle. Sometimes we’d trade our cups for cardboard tubes, old fruit baskets or tin cans. We’d try to make them different every year by decorating them with doilies, construction paper, stickers and stamps.

Our baskets were filled with popcorn and candy, but once in a while a neighbor would give a flower ready to plant in a pot.

We didn’t keep it anonymous in my neighborhood. We made tags telling you who it’s for and who it’s from. But if we were seen delivering the baskets, our friends were supposed to give us chase.

Though she doesn’t make May baskets anymore, Emily Olson likes to mark May 1 by treating herself to flowers.

A boy Olson babysat when she was a teenager has since taken up the practice. Eight-year-old Alvin Smith makes May Day baskets for his neighborhood friends, plus a special one just for the Olsons. He lives about seven blocks away, so Alvin’s parents drive him to Rucker.

“He comes and drops the baskets off at our front porch, and runs away so we never get to see him,” she said. “He hops back in the car and takes off. They’re just like the ones we did, made of paper and filled with flowers from his yard. It’s really sweet.”

For more ideas on making May Day baskets, look up ideas on Pinterest and mommy blogs. The dollar stores abound with supplies to make and fill your baskets — May Day need not be expensive.

My sister helped me make the baskets in the photos that accompany this column. I hope she’ll be inspired to continue the tradition with her 3-month-old daughter. I know we had a lot of fun with it.

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