Answer Man: Explaining goodie baskets for May 1

News-DemocratMay 1, 2013 

Q. As a kid growing up in Northern Illinois during the '60s, we made May baskets and filled them with candy and popcorn to celebrate May 1. But most people I mentioned this to yesterday never heard of it. What can you tell me about the custom?

-- Jim, of Belleville

A. A more important (and, perhaps, embarrassing) question: Did you get a kiss from that little girl you had a secret crush on?

Maybe you didn't follow that part of the custom, but it seems to me that's what made it all worthwhile -- and the best reason for reviving the time-honored tradition.

For your custom-deprived friends, the idea is to fashion small baskets of flowers and treats and give them to family and friends as gifts to celebrate spring. But one variation is to leave them on a neighbor's doorknob, ring the bell and run away as fast as you can.

They, in turn, are supposed to chase after you and, if they catch you, kiss you. So if the recipient of your basket was also the object of your affection, you'd probably want to pretend to trip or stumble and see what might bloom besides the petunias in your posy.

It's a tradition that Louisa May Alcott, of "Little Women" fame, wrote about in her 1880 "Jack and Jill: A Village Story": "The job now in hand was May baskets, for it was the custom of the children to hang them on the doors of their friends the night before May-day.

"The girls had agreed to supply baskets if the boys would hunt for flowers, much the harder task of the two. Jill had more leisure as well as taste and skill than the other girls, so she amused herself with making a goodly store of pretty baskets. (But) not a flower had shown its head except a few hardy dandelions and here and there a cluster of saxifrage."

By then, however, such celebrations had been established for centuries. In fact, to find their origin, you'd have to go back to the days before Christ when May 1 was one of the Druids' two most important days of the year because it marked the official end to Britain's long, harsh winter. As part of their festival of Beltane, they lit a fire to encourage the springtime sun, cattle were driven through the fire to purify them and young couples ran through the smoke for good luck.

Always looking for a reason to party, the Romans also turned May 1 into an orgy with a five-day festival to honor Flora, the goddess of flowers. So it was only natural that when the Romans invaded Britain, they quickly incorporated Floralia with Beltane.

The resulting customs grew and spread. By the Middle Ages, virtually every English village had a Maypole, which residents danced and sang around. (I can still hum the tune that blared incessantly for weeks as we students at Henry Raab practiced our Maypole dance for the district Field Day festivities.)

In old Europe, youths would fell a tree, cut off most of the branches and decorate it with violets like Attis, the ancient Roman god. Then, blowing horns and flutes, they would take it into their village at sunrise.

The Puritans put the kibosh on many of these festivities in the 1600s, but when their joyless days ended, the May Day fun returned, albeit in a more G-rated form. Instead of fertility rites and worship of ancient gods, it became a day of harmless pranks and merriment for kids -- hence, the goodie baskets.

Maybe now we could bring it into the high-tech age by hanging iPads with Internet pictures of flower-filled baskets on doors.

Q. Please tell me why we use Mayday as a distress call -- even though the emergency might be in July or November.

-- W.S., of Belleville

A. Glad to respond to your SOS: In 1923, Frederick Stanley Mockford was a radio officer at Croydon Airport in London. He was asked to find a word that would be short and easily understood yet convey a feeling of urgency to pilots and ground crews in an emergency. Since much of the air traffic he dealt with was coming from Le Bourget Airport in Paris, Mockford decided on "Mayday" from the French word m'aider as in "venez m'aider" -- "come help me."

Today's trivia

What state changed its "Sunshine State" nickname because it felt it couldn't compete with Florida?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: By some accounts, actress Linda Darnell had a lifelong fear of fire, which supposedly caused major problems on the set when they filmed the London fire scene in "Forever Amber" and when she was burned at the stake in "Anna and the King of Siam." So it was sadly ironic when, on April 10, 1965, she died in a house fire in Chicago at age 41. The popular story is that she fell asleep with a lit cigarette as she watched her 1940 film "Star Dust." But biographer Ronald Davis says she was not responsible for the blaze and died trying to make it to the front door instead of jumping out a window as her friend's daughter had done.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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