Why the Tradition of May Day Baskets Should Make a Comeback

Our modern-day idea comes with an eco-friendly twist.

May Day basket
Photo: Johnny Fogg

Knock, knock. Who's there? A spring tradition dating back generations. In the 1800s and early 1900s, people would mark the first of May by hanging baskets of flowers or sweets on neighbors' doorknobs, knocking on the door, and dashing away before they can be discovered. It was an overall silly yet fun experience. Louisa May Alcott gives an apt description of the events of May Day in her novel Jack and Jill:

"Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another's arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly; such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling—it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener."

It has origins dating back to the pagan festival, Beltane, a rural pre-Christian prehistoric tradition where families separated by long cold winters would congregate together to celebrate the arrival of spring and being together. Though it has changed from baskets filled with foods that weren't available in the wintertime to paper-cone baskets filled with fragile flowers and candies, the intent is more or less the same: Winter is over, and it's time to come together and celebrate spring.

Modern-day May baskets can be as impressive or simple as the giver wishes, the point being that the giver took time and effort to create the basket with care and good intention. Traditionally, a May basket may be filled with things found growing in the yard: daffodils, tulips, hyacinth, even tiny violets.

In more recent years, children have filled baskets with popcorn and candy, decorating the outside with hand-drawn pictures or stickers. Any version is acceptable, so long as it's a basket found hanging from the doorknob or sitting on the step. For a modern spin, surprise a friend on your block, a coworker, or a teacher with simple stems wrapped in paper, and bundled with treats (like a bottle of Belvoir elderflower-and-rose lemonade and a tin of Les Anis de Flavigny rose-flavored anise candies) in a net bag they can reuse at the green­ market for seasons to come.

May Day is less observed today as it once was in earlier centuries, with the exception of a few rural areas in the U.S. where it is still fondly remembered and enjoyed. Even in these small communities, it's a tradition that seems to be dying out. These rural areas are often cut off from each other by long hard winters, not so different from the friends and neighbors that celebrated Beltane so long ago.

In this modern age of correspondence when anyone can send a text to check in with friends and neighbors, it may seem unnecessary to go to such great lengths to create a basket and even sillier to dash away, leaving it on their doorstep, but the truth may be the opposite. A small act of kindness (like taking time to curate a gift basket with your own creativity) speaks volumes more than any text message ever could. Whether you're living in rural Illinois or an apartment in New York City, we all have neighbors, and who doesn't like receiving a gift?

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