The First of May, as our grandparents knew, begs a holiday. Easter, the occasion for once-a-year dresses in our parents’ and grandparents’ day, is weeks in the past. April Fools was a blip, a gimmick – a bad joke or an out-of-character, left-handed scheme born of too many cocktails. Memorial Day, meanwhile, waits weeks away, beckoning with a three-day weekend if you work in the city, but promising only more time for field cultivating if your kin farm, as mine do.
Midwest farm kids both, my folks initiated us early to the mysterious rites of May, when the corn first sends its green shoot up through the good black earth – a little, vegetable maypole – and the green haze of crops gradually overspreads our Grant Wood hillsides. For us, it was usually our first time out in a light jacket, or, if we were lucky, in long sleeves, and we were feeling our oats. May Day, as we celebrated it some 30-odd years ago, proved a day tailor made for the historical moment – the Dr. Spock epoch when an enterprising parent could take two or three or four rambunctious munchkins, give them a stack of waxy paper cups, hand-picked flowers from the garden, a bunch of bagged candy, and some homemade popcorn or peanuts to shell, and create for them a “learning experience.” A paper-punch and a pipe cleaner later you had, small enough for a child’s wee hand, a cup and a handle with which you could hold May – and pass its prodigality along for the sharing.
But the best part of May Day wasn’t stuffing cups, it was the hocus-pocus disappearing act awaiting us just the other side of the doorbells we’d ring. Into the car we scrambled with a cardboard flat full of overflowing paper cup “baskets,” making Mom slow down for the tight curves on the road into town for fear our cups would runneth over. Like Santa, we made our list, populated it with both the naughty and nice, and headed off to town, where our aunts and most of our school friends waited: sitting, city ducks.
When we arrived, Mom’s old Olds idling in someone else’s drive, one of us little imps, crouching low like a solider in a combat zone, would race around the car, scamper to the door, ring the doorbell, and beat it the heck back to the back seat, the car already rolling when we slammed the door shut. We would rubberneck around to watch our sweet, half-suspecting victims open the door and blink into the sun – like Punxsutawney Phil on the second of February – before reaching down for the little grail we’d filled. It was like fair-weather trick or treating, only better, without any of the “oh my, how scary you children look” play acting. Who wanted to perform like a circus monkey for an adult when you could have it your way, ring the doorbell, disappear like the Invisible Man, then stick around to watch the grayhairs scratch their salt and pepper at your miraculous front-door offering?
For all that delicious joy, though, we don’t celebrate May Day much any more. Today, most children only see a Maypole on television or when they’re dragged along by their Generation X parents to a renaissance fair, where May Day lives in the past along with knights and ladies, warriors and wenches. The First of May now slips by with nary a dance, distressed damsel or waxy paper cup.
When we miss marking May, we miss a lot. We conveniently forget the old agrarian calendar when May 1 meant something to celebrate and was as good a reason to join hands with your neighbors around the Maypole as it was to hope your ribbon would get tied up with your sweetheart’s, and you’d have to figure out how to untangle it yourselves. You’d be left to determine, your elders looking on, where you began and where your sweetie left off – just like real life. Somehow love as a colorful mess of ribbons – an impossible knot you and your partner had to undo and redo to fully appreciate its strength – died along with our observance of May.
The farm families of my youth valued May Day in their bones, a slow-growing, overspreading warmth that had them ready, when the grass greened, to tap their toes and engage in a little mischief. Today’s generation of children and grandchildren, most of whom will never take up the plow as a rite of spring, would do well to keep the tradition alive. We can help them by taking the time to fill their baskets to brimming. And when they look at us, puzzled at this “new,” fun and seemingly inexplicable spring holiday, we can tell them, the old mischief dancing in our eyes, “Think of it this way: Thanksgiving in May.”
Raised on an Iowa Heritage Farm, Zachary Michael Jack is a writer and journalist interested in preserving in prose little treasures from the past.