Volume IX, No. 3, Spring 1982
EASTER, ARBOR DAY AND MAY DAY
by Vickie Hooper and Kirsten Ksara
It is appropriate that we end our four part series of features on holidays with the spring
celebrations of Easter, Arbor Day and May Day, for these days have more in common than those
of the other seasons. All three are symbolic of new beginnings, just as the spring season itself is
nature's promise of the continuation of the cycle of life after its period of near death or
hibernation. Easter is a Christian promise of life beyond this life; Arbor Day is a utilitarian
awareness of the need to help nature refurnish the earth with trees; May Day is a celebration of
fertility, a carry-over from the ancient world.
Easter, just like Christmas, is still one of the most celebrated holidays just as it was fifty years ago. It was a special Sunday anticipated by both children and adults.
Part of the fun was in making the traditional preparations. Besides cooking special dishes for the upcoming day, some families colored eggs for an egg hunt. They did not need commercial dyes, but used natural ones. In addition to using dye from hickory bark, Lucy Caffey's mother used elderberries. "We didn't know they were good to eat," she said. "Mother would boil them and take the juice and that would dye the eggs purple. That's all we used elderberries for because we thought the berry was poisonous, but it's not because I now use it to make jelly."
Children might make or buy an Easter basket and decorate it to put their pretty eggs in.
Belief in the Easter bunny was not as universal as belief in Santa Claus. It all depended on how the parents felt about it. Lois Roper Beard wasn't taught about the Easter bunny. Hazel Cravens said, "We sort of halfway believed in the Easter bunny, but we knew there wasn't an Easter bunny. It was kind of fun to talk about. Some kids believed in the Easter rabbit and some didn't."
Grace Manchester Johnson believed, and she had proof! "One Easter morning I got up and was getting my breakfast and I looked out my back window," she said. There was a rabbit out there. I said, 'Don't tell me there's no Easter bunny because there's one right there.' I guess there's always one of them. Whether he was bringing eggs or not, I don't know, but he was there."
But whether they believed in an Easter rabbit or not, most children enjoyed an egg hunt. Some thought the Easter bunny laid the eggs in the night, so the children would search for eggs hid by their parents or older brothers or sisters as soon as they got up. Others might have the egg hunt at other times.
If the weather was good, the hunt was outside in the lawn, in the barn, by the spring branch or wherever the children's imagination led them. If the weather was bad, they searched for the eggs in the house.
Another big part of Easter, especially for the children, was getting new clothes. All winter long they wore the same clothes, usually having only one or two changes of school clothes and one outfit for Sunday. The coming of spring almost demanded new clothes to replace the almost worn out or outgrown ones. The clothes may have been handed down from sister to sister or brother to brother, but fixed up and remodeled a bit, the clothes were new to the child receiving them. Each child would have a new outfit which would usually be the good clothes for the year. Getting new clothes for Easter was very important. Hazel said, "If you didn't have a new outfit for Easter, you were just ostracized. All the girls had a new dress and new hat. It was almost a rigid rule."
Lois agreed, "We got violet ruffled dresses so much of the time with maybe a new pair of white socks and slippers. We almost always had to have a little hat. My sister would hand it down to me and I would hand it down to my little sister. Sometimes we would even dye our white hat into colors. We didn't have to have new ones."
The family dressed up and went to church where the children could show off their pretty new clothes and to admire their friends' clothes. There was usually a large crowd at church. Like Christmas, Easter was a religious holiday, and many people came to church on this one specific Sunday and not the rest of the year.
One Easter Sunday was a very special day for Grace Johnson. On March 26, 1913, she joined her church. They were having a week's revival. Her mother played the piano while her father conducted the church orchestra every night. "On Easter Sunday when the preacher made the call for the people to come down and join the church, I went down," she said. "My mother didn't think I knew what I was doing because I was not quite six."
Easter was a family day celebrated with a big dinner. Most families would have relatives, friends, or maybe a new person in the neighborhood over for a get-together and dinner.
As with all special dinners there was usually a big variety of dishes prepared from the home-stored and canned foods. There would be several kinds of home canned vegetables, fruits, pickles, jellies, and more than one kind of cakes, pies and cobblers. Lois' mother often made a big white cake with frosting and coconut on top. The woman of the house also wasn't satisfied if there wasn't more than one kind of meat dish. It was too early in the season for fried chicken, but she could always dress a fat hen for chicken and dumplings or bake the last ham hanging in the smokehouse which she would have saved from the fall butchering.
Some children had their egg hunt in the afternoon. Instead of an egg hunt some had an egg roast then. Lois said, "I've seen eggs roasted in ashes, but we would usually be in too big of a hurry. We would take a bucket and boil them and then eat them. Maybe we would have crackers with them, but not very often. We'd take some lettuce out of the garden, if it was up, because usually we would have lettuce early. Or we'd eat pickles with the eggs."
Easter was a day to eat all the eggs anyone wanted. Hazel said, "My mother would cook the eggs. On other days we didn't always eat all the eggs we wanted because eggs was a money crop and we sold the eggs. But on Easter we had all the eggs we could eat."
Sometimes with all the food, new clothes and fun, people might forget what Easter meant. But the large attendance at church that day reminded everyone of its religious significance. Lois said, "The most important thing was to keep in mind what Easter was all about. Easter was about the resurrection of our Lord, and without that, we wouldn't have had a Christian background."
Unlike Easter, Arbor Day was not a religious holiday with visiting and big dinners. It was a work day to appreciate our woodlands and help renew them.
Arbor Day, a generally observed tree-planting day throughout the United States, originated in Nebraska where it was first observed on April 10, 1872. J. Sterling Morton, who later became United States Secretary of Agriculture, began the plan of setting aside one day in the year to publically plant trees. After Morton died in 1885, the date was changed to his birthday, April 22, and was made a legal holiday in Nebraska.
The idea of promoting the day through the schools took hold and spread all over the country. The purpose of Arbor Day was to assist in foresting scantily wooded areas and to beautify towns. In schools it was a means of teaching children conservation.
Even though Arbor Day meant a bit of work, the children welcomed it as a break from their books. Since they usually planted only one tree, one or two big boys did the digging while the others watched. They thought it was great to get outside for an hour or two during class time into the balmy spring weather.
Arbor Day was not observed too much in many of the Ozark country schools, probably, because of the abundance of trees already in the region, there was not the need to plant more. Another reason might be that by late April most rural schools would be closed for the summer.
However, Ozark town schools often had educational programs on Arbor Day, culminating in planting a tree. Grace Johnson remembered when she was in Lebanon School. "We used to have assemblies on Arbor Day when we'd have programs on the founding of Arbor Day and its purpose. We also planted trees on Arbor Day several times. When I was in the first grade we planted one down on the corner. Here just recently they cut down an old tree there, and I bet it was the one we planted about in 1913."
All special days are fun, but perhaps none are as carefree, festive and beautiful as May Day,
celebrated by the delivery of May baskets and the winding of the Maypole. May Day, the first day
of May, was set aside to celebrate the coming of summer and its abundance. Beautiful weather,
flowers blooming everywhere and the high spirits of children this time of year all promise good
times ahead. From very early times until soon after World War II when Russia's May Day
celebrations of the beginning of Communism threw a damper over May Day festivities in our
country, the day was a Special one for children and young adults both in expressing friendship
with flowers and as an all-school program for the whole community.
Children greatly enjoyed making and delivering their May baskets to their friends both young and old. May baskets were filled with flowers and sometimes candy. Sometimes, as a class project, children would construct the baskets at school, but more often they made them at home.
Children saved boxes such as small candy boxes and paper boxes to make their baskets by covering them with paper which they also carefully saved from store-bought items. They added handles and decorated them with yarn or scraps of ribbon. Some children made baskets by folding a piece of colorful paper into a basket shape.
They filled the finished basket with flowers such as violets or flags and added candy if the basket
was for someone special. "If you got one with candy in it that usually meant some little boy
brought it to you. Oh, boy, you wondered who it was, because you weren't supposed to put your
name in it," said Grace Johnson. "We didn't go after dark. We went more or less just at twilight.
The idea was to try to slip up and put it on somebody's porch, knock and then run before they
could see you, or you'd wait until you got out away from the door and make a little racket so
they'd come to the door. Sometimes several of us would go together and one of the mothers
would go with us. Everybody was excited to see how many May baskets they could find on
their own porch when they got back. We'd spend a lot of time making pretty baskets, too."
Celebrating the coming of summer is an old, old custom dating back to the ancient Romans. In their spring festival called Floralia, they gathered flowers to honor Maia, the goddess of springtime for whom the month of May is named. The purpose of the celebration was to insure abundant crops.
The custom of celebrating May Day was passed to the English as well as many other peoples the Romans conquered. May Day was the favorite holiday of many people in medieval England. People rose before dawn to gather flowers with which they decorated their homes and churches. Hawthorn blossoms were widely used and thus they gained the name "Mayflowers." There was even a superstition that washing one's face with May Day morning dew would beautify the skin. A king and queen of May were chosen to reign over the day's festivities, which included such activities as singing spring carols and dancing around the maypole.
Maypoles were tall poles erected in village parks and decorated with streamers, garlands, and dyed eggshells. People danced around them for nearly a day. Some poles were larger than the mast of a one hundred ton ship. May Day celebrations were frowned on by the Puritans and were therefore put down during Cromwell's rule in the 1650s. However during the English Restoration period the tradition was revived. The custom of braiding ribbons or streamers around maypoles didn't begin until later in the nineteenth century. After the May Day festivities were over, the poles were usually taken down although some larger cities, such as London, had permanent Maypoles standing in their parks.
When English immigrants came to America they brought the tradition of celebrating May Day with them. The custom was not practiced as much in America as in England, again because of the Puritans' influence. The custom was kept alive in spite of this, and as settlers drifted west to the Appalachians and eventually to the Ozarks, they brought this custom with them.
School children of all ages in some Ozark towns held May Day festivals though most country schools did not hold festivals such as this. In these programs there could be various performances. Some students might sing about the coming of summer and some might play instruments, recite poetry or put on skits or dances. The entire program might take about two hours culminating with the winding of the Maypole. All of the winding was done to music, "Country Gardens," a piano piece, being a popular tune. The children in the chorus would often be dressed as flowers or nymphs or anything else connected with nature. In larger schools there might be several poles of different sizes and colors which would be wound simultaneously, the high school or college students winding the tallest pole and the youngest winding the shortest.
As a teacher at Gideon, Missouri, in 1931, Grace Johnson organized a May Day festival. "I was in charge of it, but I got the phys. ed. teacher to carry it out and help. We had a Maypole for the first and second grade, one for the third and fourth, the fifth and sixth, the seventh and eighth and the high school. That was five big Maypoles. We put the big high school one in the middle and put the other four around them. They were different colors. These teachers got out and worked with these youngsters and taught them how to do it--we picked special ones out of each grade to do it. They all tried out. The ones that did the best job got to do it, of course.
"Then we had a high school chorus that sang sort of a cantata. It was something about the seasons. I had all the music there from the grade school clear through high school. I had my little orchestra playing. It was all outside. We moved the piano outside, I remember. The superintendent thought I was crazy, but we got the job done. I had a chorus of flowers. The ones that didn't wind Maypoles were also dressed in costumes, and they were different kinds of spring flowers and leaves."
There were colleges who sponsored May Day celebrations. Their festivals were much like those of the public schools, but on a more sophisticated level. The physical education department would usually be in charge. The school band would play and the glee clubs would sing. Students would elect a May Queen to preside over the program, usually beginning with a parade.
The festivals usually had a central theme reflected in the students' costumes and music. After the parade, different clubs would present skits, dances and music, climaxing in the winding of the Maypoles. There were many different poles, each a different color and wound by a different club.
Southwest Missouri State College in Springfield, Missouri sponsored yearly programs. One such celebration in the late 1920s was called 'A Trip to the Moon,' Grace said. "Now back in 1926 the moon was a far off thing, and a trip to the moon was out of this world fantasy. They had children from Greenwood Laboratory School there so we had all ages, first grade on up through college winding these Maypoles. We'd have a number of them--the grounds would be just full where we played. They were all dressed in costume. They gave little fancy dances besides winding the Maypole. There was a May Day parade downtown and back. We'd also elect a May Queen and we'd crown the queen and her attendants, and she'd preside over all the program. We always had a big May festival."
Some practice was required for the musicians and for those who were winding the Maypole so that the performance would go smoothly. The actual winding of the Maypole was not too complicated, though. In addition to the dancers the only equipment needed was a Maypole and streamers.
A Maypole was simply a round, wooden pole up to twelve feet in height. Some were braced at the bottom to make them stand and others were set in a hole in the ground. They needed to be very firmly anchored for there would be quite a bit of pull on the pole from the pull of the streamers held by the sixteen people winding it.
The streamers fastened on top of the pole were often made of cambric, a strong, shiny cotton cloth which wouldn't run or fade if it happened to rain. Each streamer was about ten inches wide and longer than the pole. As it takes sixteen people to wind a Maypole, there were sixteen streamers on each pole. On any given pole there were eight white streamers and eight colored streamers. Alternating colors were arranged around the top of the pole at regular intervals, and then one end of each streamer was folded and nailed to the top. The other ends of the streamers were then loosely looped around the bottom of the pole, so that they could be easily undone when the dancers would come in to wind the Maypole.
There are at least three methods of winding a Maypole and all three methods could be used on each pole. The first and simplest method was done with everyone standing in a circular formation around the pole, all facing the same direction. The important thing here was to hold the streamers so that the width of the streamer would wind up flat against the pole, making it look striped like a barber's pole. The streamers also had to be held firmly so they would not sag and so that each one would appear in its proper place in the pattern. This method was the one that most of the smaller children used when they wound.
A more difficult way of winding the Maypole also used the circular formation around the pole. All those with colored streamers would face clockwise, while those with white streamers faced counterclockwise, or vice-versa. Then all would move in the direction in which they were facing, weaving in and then out among the dancers coming from the opposite direction with streamers of another color. This movement was similar to the grand right and left in square dancing. Dancers with colored streamers first went underneath the white streamer of the person they faced, and around the outside of the next person they came to. People with white streamers would allow those with colored streamers to go underneath their streamer, and then they would go under the next colored streamer they came to, and so on. People going under a streamer had to duck and people on the outside had to hold their streamers high to allow the others to pass. By continuing this in and out movement, dancers wove the streamers around the pole. Using this method dancers held the streamers in the hand closest to the pole, but it didn't matter how they held the streamers since, instead of lying flat on the pole the streamers became woven on it.
A third and still more complicated method of winding a Maypole involved groups of four people crossing over to the opposite side of the pole to braid the streamers around it. First the dancers would get into groups of four, thus making a square out of the original circle. Each group would be called either north, south, east or west. Each group would face the group opposite them. The north and south groups would start simultaneously by moving to the other side to exchange places. One couple from the north and one couple from the south would pass on the east side of the pole and the other two couples would pass on the west side. When the two groups met at the pole, each couple would pass through the couple opposite them, keeping to the right as they did so. Then the east and west groups exchanged places in the same manner, always keeping to the right. The north-south dancers would return to their original places, then east-west. The dancers would continue this movement, exchanging positions back and forth to braid the streamers around the pole as far down as desired or until there was not enough streamer left to wind anymore. One-half to two-thirds of the pole would be covered when the winding was completed. When the streamers were used up, they were just left to hang, for they would not unwind since the braid was so tight. Sometimes, however, the dance was reversed to unwind the entire pole. To unwind, the couples would pass each other on the left.
The spectacle of several poles being wound at once was a very beautiful one. The rainbow-like colors of the streamers flowing out from the center poles in itself was eye-catching, but when in time to light music, the gaily-dressed dancers wove the streamers in and out, the scene was almost breathtaking in its total effect. The viewers could hardly decide whether to watch the dancers or the pattern the streamers were making on the pole.
As the dancers first began to weave the pattern, it looked like the beginnings of a woven umbrella, radiating out from the center, but after a few complete circles of the dancers, the weaving began to cling to the pole in colorful patterns. Multiplying this effect by five or six or more poles being wound, the viewer can almost believe in the Roman goddess of springtime and her assurance of good crops the coming summer.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.