Celebrations, holidays, traditions. Many memories attach themselves to special moments outside the daily rhythms of ordinary life. Often connected with food, smells, stories, and participation, how and what do you pause to celebrate? Maybe some of these “Unsung Holidays” will inspire you to gather people, create a new memory, and celebrate a beauty within God’s world.
Have you ever heard of May Basket Day?1 Chances are, you haven’t. Or, if you have, you probably haven’t given or received a May basket in quite some time. If you have no idea what May Basket Day is, you are not alone. I decided to poll folks from a wide variety of states and countries about May baskets, and almost 93% of them said May baskets were not something done in their area.2 While the precise origins of this little-known holiday are uncertain, celebrations of May Basket Day most likely came about as part of agricultural springtime celebrations that took place on May 1.
The Farmer’s Almanac says, “Traditionally, (May 1) was the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice! In ancient times, this was one of the Celtic cross-quarter days, which marked the midway points between the (four) solstices and equinoxes of the year.”3 May 1 was a day to celebrate the new life of spring, to sing and dance, to light bonfires, and to “bring in the May” by gathering flowers and crowning a king and queen.
When I was a kid (way back in the 1980s), May Basket Day was a day for neighborliness and fun. Every year on May 1, my family would make simple May baskets to share with our neighbors and family members. If we were lucky, someone in our neighborhood might share a May basket with us too. Even though the observance of May Basket Day has faded away in many parts of the United States, I continue to pass it on to my kids and to others in my community. Perhaps you’d like to take up the basket-making mantle too.
My mom taught my brother and me to make our baskets out of paper cups with string or chenille stems for handles, but May baskets can be made from whatever you have around the house. As a reporter from the Sterling, Illinois Gazette explained it in 1871: “A May-basket is—well, I hardly know how to describe it; but ’tis something to be hung on a door. Made of paper generally, it contains almost anything, by way of small presents you have in mind to put in it, together with your respects, best wishes—love, perhaps.”4
May baskets do not need to be big or elaborate. In fact, it’s better if they are neither of these things. As I was growing up, we included simple treats (like popcorn and candy) inside each basket we made, along with some flowers. Sometimes we made the flowers from paper. Other times we gathered wildflowers. When it comes to making May baskets, there are no hard and fast rules. The object is to share kindness with the people around you, so anything that helps you do that is fair game.
“The object is to share kindness with the people around you, so anything that helps you do that is fair game.”
As a child, I found the most exciting part of May Basket Day to be the delivery method. May 1 was the only day a year where we were allowed to knock on someone’s door and run away. My brother and I took turns hanging baskets from doorknobs, knocking on the door, and sprinting away. My mom told us if we were caught, the person who caught us might kiss us. Fortunately, that never happened. If someone caught us in the act of delivering baskets, they just smiled at us, and we laughed. Sometimes, they invited us in for a cookie and conversation.
May Basket Day may be an unsung holiday, but I think it’s time for it to make a (small) comeback. To that end, I make May baskets with my kids every year for the people who live on our street, and I’m hosting a May basket-making party at my church on April 30 to teach others how to make May baskets for their friends and neighbors. I hope May Basket Day never gets commercialized. Half the fun of the celebration is the creativity and simplicity, and for there to be Hallmark cards and expensive, designer baskets would take away from its quaintness. But wouldn’t it be great for neighborhoods and communities to latch onto the idea of surprising each other with kindness?
Researchers have been sounding the alarm about an epidemic of loneliness in the United States for years, a crisis that has only worsened during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.5 As people become increasingly isolated from one another, opportunities for connection and friendship are more important than ever. While I don’t believe a May basket can solve the epidemic of loneliness, I do think it’s one way to begin breaking down the walls that separate us. Why not make a simple May basket to share with someone you’ve wanted to talk to for a while, but haven’t yet mustered up the courage? How about connecting with a new co-worker or classmate by sharing a simple gift of joy and kindness?
“As people become increasingly isolated from one another, opportunities for connection and friendship are more important than ever.”
I have many other reasons I could share with you for participating in May Basket Day,6 but my hope is that this short piece on this unsung holiday might pique your curiosity. Perhaps you might feel invited to celebrate the changing of the seasons and to reach out in your neighborhood with fun and kindness. May Baskets may not change the world, but it wouldn’t hurt for us to try.
This Unsung Holiday celebrates the tradition of sharing May Baskets on May 1, not the Worker’s Day connected to labor movements also called May Day. ↩