May baskets: the anonymous gifts

I lived most of my childhood in this home in a peaceful neighborhood in Minnesota where the mailman delivered letters to the box by the front door, the paper carrier gently placed the daily news inside the screen door, and a milkman brought glass bottles of milk to the doorstep.

Maybe there was a hedgerow of bushes or a garden bed of flowers between properties, or a chain-link fence kept dogs (like Mrs. Fenske’s dachshund) from wandering, but you could see from one neighbor’s yard to another. A grassy boulevard filled the space between the street and the wide sidewalk, perfect for children on roller skates, tricycles, and wagons to move freely up and down the block. Except for our family with six children, most of the people in our neighborhood were elderly couples and widows.

It was there that I learned about May Day, an ancient holiday originating in northern Europe and celebrated on the 1st of May. It was a time of marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring, especially in areas with long, cold winters. The most endearing part of May Day was the delivery of May baskets. As simple as a paper cone with a stapled paper handle, strips of construction paper woven together, or a plastic strawberry basket intertwined with bits of yarn, a little basket was filled with flowers or treats and delivered anonymously to someone else’s front door.

My siblings and I filled our little handmade baskets with anything that was blooming — maybe violets from beside our house or sprigs of lilacs from the bushes in our backyard. Then came the fun part: deliver, run, and hide!

Usually one of my brothers, or whoever we deemed as the fastest runner, would quietly sneak up to the front door of one of the houses on our block. He would gingerly hang the May basket on the doorknob while the rest of us peeked from behind a bush. Then the delivery person would ring the doorbell and run away to avoid being seen. We’d all wait quietly (or at least we thought we were being quiet) until the front door opened, the basket was found, and the neighbor went back inside her house. Then we’d do it all again at another house.

The whole experience was exhilarating and remarkably fulfilling, and I wanted to pass the tradition to my children. But decades later, living in south Texas instead of Minnesota, the tradition of May baskets wasn’t commonly shared.

So I taught our daughters about May Day and helped them make paper cones with stapled handles, woven strips of construction paper, or decorated plastic containers. They filled the little baskets with flowers made of cut-out handprints or egg carton cups with pipe cleaner stems, baggies of homemade chocolate chip cookies, or wood sorrel blooms from our backyard.

And on the 1st day of May, we set out to secretly deliver the baskets to the front doors of our neighbors, ringing their doorbells, and running away as fast as preschoolers can safely run. When we got home, the girls laughed and squealed, and they experienced what it feels like to do something for another person without expecting anything in return.

We made and delivered baskets again the next year, and the next, and as the girls got older they were able to conspire about who would ring the bell, where they would hide, and how they would get away without being seen.

One May Day, Mrs. Seelig, who lived two houses down the street, tiptoed up to our front door, rang the doorbell, and left three baskets filled with treasures for little girls: tiny ceramic fairies, costume jewelry, and chocolates. We saw her from our front window, but we played along and let her get away before opening the door. The girls stood on the front step and exclaimed in delight loudly enough that they hoped Mrs. Seelig could hear them.

For years to follow, our three daughters took a May basket to Mrs. Seelig and she brought one to each of them. As Mrs. Seelig grew older and frailer, she would drive her car from two houses away, and we gave her extra time to pull her car out of the driveway before opening the door and discovering her special gifts.

I realized in looking through old photo albums that I don’t have any pictures of May baskets, either given or received. I think that’s because what the baskets looked like wasn’t as important as what we learned from them. There is joy in giving when you don’t expect anything in return. The giving of May baskets involves thinking more about others and less about yourself. May baskets are about loving your neighbor.

After we moved to a new neighborhood, I went to visit Mrs. Seelig. She showed me the collection of handmade May baskets the girls had given her over the years. She had saved them all.

Happy May Day!

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”

Mother Theresa

Photo by Melissa Davilio from Pexels

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