Remembering May Baskets

May 1, 2016 | 7 comments

Old Fashioned May Basket

May Basket

Last night there was a discussion at our house about May Baskets.  Our guests were all a generation younger than we and, although the oldest among them had heard of May Baskets, none had ever participated in that tradition.  I (being the eldest present) remembered and. I must admit, felt a little lonely about it.

When I was a child, on the first morning of May, I gathered flowers from the garden and put them in a paper basket I had made and took them next door.  Mrs. Musso lived there.  She was old, spoke broken English, dressed in long black skirts and shawls and – what I remember best – had a huge, disfiguring goiter.  We neighborhood kids thought she was a witch but our parents saw her as a canny Italian immigrant who owned several large houses in the area and, in her old age, supported herself by the rents they brought in.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Friends, May Day 1938

Eleanor Roosevelt and Friends, May Day 1938

From the time I was five until I was eleven – all the years we lived in Alameda, California – I hung a May Basket on Mrs. Musso’s doorknob, rang her bell, and scampered away.  I’m sure I did not go undetected.  Mrs. Musso lived upstairs in the back; my friend Jimmy (who I told everyone at school was my brother) and his family were her tenants and lived in the rest of the house.

To deliver my May Basket, I had to climb up that steep, outdoor stairway, do my good deed, and then run down again, supposedly without being seen.  Mrs. Musso undoubtedly did see (and hear!) me, both coming and going, but she never let on.  My friends were doing the same thing for their nearby neighbors – usually old women living alone – but Mrs. Musso ‘belonged’ to me.

Sydney circa May 1943

Sydney circa May 1943

This morning I read on the NPR History site that May Baskets “went out” in the sixties and only us old folks remember them.  The article lamented the loss of such a lovely, simple tradition but concluded with this:

So what happened? Maybe the ritual receded because of a national fall from innocence. Or an increased desire for get-off-my-lawn privacy…. Whatever the case, Madonna Dries Christensen, a writer in Florida, is not totally sure she wants the habitual ritual to flourish again. “I harbor a fear that some major company will rediscover May Basket Day and mar its simplicity with commercial baskets, cards and trinkets,” she writes in her 2012 memoir, In Her Shoes: Step By Step. “To ward off that calamity, please do not share this … with anyone who might be in cahoots with such a manufacturer.”  Ditto.

7 Comments

  1. Nancy Russell Stone

    Sydney: Thank you for the fragrant walk down Memory Lane. The name Mrs. Bromley popped into my mind – was she a neighbor when we lived in San Anselmo? The basket, the flowers, the fertive delivery, hanging the basket on her doorknob, a quick exit from her front door. Another storyline for the Memoir Class Jack and I are taking.

    Reply
  2. Clay Nichols

    Thanks for the memories of Maydays past, Sydney. This morning I gathered flowers at first light for Margie’s May Basket. A t’s a wonderful tradition that should be renewed.

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  3. Bruce Jones

    My sisters and I made and distributed May baskets around the neighborhood in Eugene, Oregon until we moved to San Francisco in 1949, and never did it again.

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  4. Barbara Ellsworth

    In Chinook when I was in grade school, we put May baskets on the porch, rang the bell, and ran before the boys could catch us to kiss us…..anyone else do this or was this just a Chinook thing?

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  5. Caroline Miller

    Gosh, that seems such a long time ago that I made and left May baskets for special people.. Agree with Clay, the tradition should be renewed.

    Reply
  6. Betty LeFevre

    I remember delivering May baskets too! We would make them and deliver them to friends around our small town in North Dakota. That was pre WWII. We moved to California in 1941 or 42 and never took up the tradition here.

    Reply
  7. Ruth maloney

    Yes I am. Old enough to remember delivering May baskets. Thanks to my special Mom for teaching me such traditions in the 50’s

    Reply

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