Of the many wondrous mysteries of my childhood, one survived until I became an adult. Every year on the night of April 30th, someone rang our doorbell and disappeared, leaving behind a gift of four small fudge sundaes from Dairy Queen on our doorstep, one for each of the children in our family.
Often this happened shortly after we arrived back at home from our neighborhood May basket deliveries. I know, I know, that’s a quaint little tradition that nobody follows anymore, maybe even fewer people today than when I was growing up in the 1980’s, except that at my house we did. Up and down our block we placed a spring flower on each doorstep, planted in a little basket, usually made from a paper cup decorated with childish scrawl.
Most of the time, we left the gifts to be discovered in the morning, on May Day itself, but with some of the younger neighbors, the ones with kids our age, we would ring the doorbell and run like crazy to hide in the bushes or jump into the car with Mom at the wheel and the motor running (in another, less scrupulous, lifetime she might have made a good bank robber).
It wasn’t a huge secret that our family was behind the May baskets, but it was a great game for the neighborhood kids to try to catch us at it. And we were no better. I remember one year, one of my brothers (I won’t reveal which one because their children sometimes read this blog and it would be more fun to have them ask their dads), deciding he was going to wait out the fudge sundae bandit, dressed in head-to-toe black ninja garb and climbed the tree in the front yard to watch.
He successfully delayed the arrival of the sundaes (much to the dismay of the rest of us), but still they came. And my ninja brother didn’t see a thing.
The May basket and the tradition of celebrating May Day has a messy history, not the kind of thing I usually like to write about. I’d love to be able to tell you about Joe Somebody winning the love of his fair maiden Pretty Girl by getting caught delivering a basket of flowers to her doorstep on May 1 of 472. This of course would have led to her kissing him and a happily-ever-after that their ancestors have been celebrating ever since. I guess that could have happened, but since no one thought to include that story on the Internet (until now), it’s forever lost to us.
What I can share with you is that May 1 has been observed for thousands of years, first as one of four seasonal Pagan holidays, symbolizing the beginning of summer and celebrated with purifying fire. Later the Romans got hold of the holiday and transformed it into a festival honoring Flora, the goddess of flowers. And there was a time when every English village had a Maypole to celebrate spring and welcome summer.
Not surprisingly, Puritan settlers in America didn’t care for the holiday and to this day it has never been widely observed in the United States. But there are pockets (like my childhood home) where the spring is marked by the sharing of a small gift with friends and neighbors and you might even find the odd festival that has children dancing around a maypole (which I’ve never done) and electing a May queen (which, alas, I’ve never been).
I’m delighted that my children enjoy the tradition now, too. But then what kid wouldn’t want to dress like a ninja and ding-dong-ditch the neighbors for a good cause? And it turns out we have a fudge sundae bandit in our neighborhood, too.
I did finally learn who was responsible for the annual sundae delivery of my childhood and it wasn’t the elderly neighbors down the street that for some reason I was always convinced were responsible. My mom let me in on her big secret a few years ago (sometimes even good bank robbers crack). In retrospect, I probably should have figured it out myself. But then childhood really should include a few good mysteries.