May Day: Let’s Bring Back The May Baskets In Austin

Gillian Smith
·5 min read

AUSTIN, TX – May Day is a perfectly inspired holiday during the time of new coronavirus. Leave your neighbor a May basket of flowers and then scamper away.

Often overlooked, the May Day holiday Friday may be the perfect coronavirus quarantine holiday in Austin. The whole point in anonymously leaving a May basket of flowers at the door of a relative, friend or neighbor is to trot away without having been seen.

Let’s bring those May baskets back in Austin. This is a perfectly inspired way to let your peeps know you’re thinking about them from a safe distance.

You may be thinking, “OK, Boomer, never heard of May baskets.”

That’s understandable. May Day is a U.S. holiday, though it’s not widely observed except as a colloquial tradition kept alive in some pockets of the United States.

(And, no, May Day the holiday has nothing to do with the mayday, the international distress signal; Frederick Mockford, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, coined the phrase because it sounded like the French word “m’aider,” or “help me.”)

The May 1 tradition of heralding the arrival of warmer weather in the Northern Hemisphere dates back many hundreds of years and has been observed in different ways. In Medieval times, for example, people danced around a maypole — a pole festooned with ribbons and streamers — and placed baskets of flowers at the base in what historians believe was a fertility ritual. The imagery is all there.

That tradition of whooping it up around the maypole never made it to the United States, though. The Puritans made sure of that, according to History.com.

But May Basket Day, as it was originally known, has a delightful history.

“A May-basket is — well, I hardly know how to describe it; but ‘tis something to be hung on the door,” the Sterling, Illinois, Gazette wrote in 1871. “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. It is hung after dark at the door of anybody the hanger fancies. Which done, the said hanger knocks and scampers.”

The writer went on to explain that a proclamation of love via a May basket could work out badly for the boy, as in it would have been “a great disgrace,” if the girl caught him. Boys couldn’t catch a break either way. If a girl hung the basket, “it disgraces the boy again not to catch her.”

By 1889, May Day was anything but a day for frivolity in the United States. Three years earlier, on May 4, 1886, a nationwide strike over several days to demand eight-hour work days was bombed in Chicago, sparking a bloody riot later known as the “Haymarket affair” that left several police officers and protesters dead.

As Time remembered the incident:

“A few minutes after ten o’clock on the night of May 4, 1886, a storm began to blow up in Chicago. As the first drops of rain fell, a crowd in Haymarket Square, in the packing house district, began to break up. At eight o’clock there had been 3,000 persons on hand, listening to anarchists denounce the brutality of the police and demand the eight-hour day, but by ten there were only a few hundred. The mayor, who had waited around in expectation of trouble, went home, and went to bed.

“The last speaker was finishing his talk when a delegation of 180 policemen marched from the station a block away to break up what remained of the meeting. They stopped a short distance from the speaker’s wagon.

“As a captain ordered the meeting to disperse, and the speaker cried out that it was a peaceable gathering, a bomb exploded in the police ranks. It wounded 67 policemen, of whom seven died. The police opened fire, killing several men and wounding 200, and the Haymarket Tragedy became a part of U. S. history.”

Eight men were arrested and convicted of murder charges in a sensational, controversial trial in which no evidence directly linking the protesters to the bomber was offered. All were convicted; four were hanged, one committed suicide and three others were pardoned six years later.

Three years later, on May 1, 1889, a coalition of socialist and Marxist parties banded with labor groups at the International Socialist Conference in Paris and called for a demonstration to honor the “Haymarket martyrs.” A year after that, more than 300,000 people protested for better working conditions at a May Day rally in London.

From that point on, May Day became more of a celebration of labor than springtime flowers.

The labor holiday was observed by governments around the world. But U.S. President Grover Cleveland, fearing the pro-labor sentiment would stir interest in communism and other radical causes, in 1894 officially declared Labor Day would be observed the first Monday in September.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower further distanced the country from the Haymarket riot in 1958 when he declared May 1 to be Law Day in the United States, saying in his proclamation: “In a very real sense, the world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive, it must choose the rule of law.”

Must-Know Dates In Austin

Even with social distancing, here are three other things you can do in May in Austin:

  1. May 1 – Austin musicians, get your tunes ready for submission to the library’s streaming music platform. The next Electric Lady Bird round is open May 1 – 30, 2020.

  2. May 6 - Waterloo Park Construction Tour presented by Waterloo Greenway Director of Planning and Design John Rigdon

  3. May 20 - Waller Creek Tunnel Tour with John Rigdon & Kristin Pipkin of the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department


This article originally appeared on the Austin Patch