Last year, in our first lockdown, my favorite holiday came and went and I didn’t even notice. But this year there is hope of a return to gatherings and celebrations and, while I will still be participating in a May Day celebration remotely, I am eager to share some May Day thoughts.
(Left: aesthetic dancer in 1910 at Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) Aesthetic dance is basically modern or interpretive dance.)
I wrote a book about May Day! And it’s a jolly good one, too. I’m going to highlight just a few photos and comments from it.
I first encountered May Day at my college, Earlham College in Richmond Indiana, a small Quaker, liberal arts school that was the first college to celebrate the event in 1870. The festival used to be annual, but by my time “Big” May Day was only celebrated every four years. My Big May Day was 1977, my senior year, and I was very involved with it: organizing a recorder ensemble, teaching the maypole dance (we had six simultaneous may poles), making the kit for the men’s morris side and more. The May Queen was one of my housemates (I helped stuff the ballot boxes). It was loads of fun.
(Above: May Day at Earlham College, 1977. We’re dancing either Gathering Peascods or Sellenger’s Round. See those black and white checked tunics? That the men’s morris side. I made most of the costumes. The front was all black with a white unicorn on it. Snappy!)
May Day festivals were very popular at women’s and co-educational colleges and universities in American from 1870 until the 1970s. My research turned up 80 institutions that had held them and, back when I was researching my book a handful still continued the tradition.
(Right: some merry, merry milkmaids, University of Missouri, 1911.)
While they varied over time, the festival had some common elements.
(Left: the girls are rocking their heels at Georgia Female College (now Valdosta State University), May Day 1933.
(Below left: Meredith College, 1965. Right, Grove City College, Pennsylvania, 2006.)
Then the folk and aesthetic dances performed in the Queen’s honor.
(Above: aesthetic dancers, 1910, Chatham University, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania)
(Right: the pageant of “Sigurd the Volsung,” Wilson College, 1929.)
The culmination of the event was usually the maypole dance. There is no “set” maypole dance: there are a number of figures and many more can be devised to suit the ages or whims of the dancers. I collected references to maypole dances being performed to tunes like “Come lasses and lads, take leave of your dads, away to the maypole hie,” but also to ragtime music, marches, waltzes, and more. Some of these dances were elaborate: there is a reference to one performed by 124 girls, but of those only 24 worked with the ribbons: the others were dancing outside the circle with garlands, wands, etc.
(Above: Wilson College, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, 1909. It’s difficult to count, but I make it around 80 girls with ribbons. Maybe more.)
(Right: the May Day festival in Mendon, Utah. The community, many of whom are members of the church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, have been celebrating May Day since the 1860s.
I hope you have a happy and safe May Day!