2009.05.20 The round-up on May baskets

Written by David Green.


A couple of weeks ago I ran an old column from 20 years ago about May Baskets. I received quite a response, offering some insight into the past, present and perhaps future of this tradition.

I heard from two Kay Johnsons. First, my Iowa friend turned Montréal resident wrote to say that she and her sister were recently reminiscing about the topic.

“We spent the week before May 1st creating the baskets, varying in size according to the number of children in each neighbor’s family.  I have no doubt that the baskets our family gave were the most creative, because we had an in-house creative designer: my mother.  She had a new design idea every year.”

In rural Guss, Iowa, it went like this: The decorated box filled with popcorn and candy was dropped on the porch, “May Basket” was yelled and the recipients had to catch the givers and kiss them.

Kay thinks the tradition died off after school consolidation and everyone was bused off to the school in town.

As a Montréal resident, May 1 now means a day for workers with marches and such—no popcorn included.

The other Kay Johnson I know—Morenci’s middle school principal—told me that May Baskets live on because of softball.

Kay had never heard of a May Basket until she started teaching here. She doesn’t know when it began, but for more than 25 years she has had a version of a May Basket hung on her annually after a softball game. By the way, “hang” is the correct verb to be used with this activity.

Her softball girls might have a slightly skewed idea about the May Basket because they don’t decorate a cardboard box. They fill a five-gallon pail with candy, but they make it special by painting it and signing their names. Kay still has a few saved, but paint doesn’t adhere well to the slick plastic surface.

They place the bucket on the diamond, yell “May Basket” and the coach has to catch them. Anyone caught joins the coach’s team.

Renae (Merillat) Schaffner was once one of the girls, but now she joins Kay as the assistant coach. Kay is glad for the help. She says she isn’t as fast as she was 20 years ago. The girls have to stay inside the fence, but still, there are some speedy kids out there. The coaches plan who to catch first so their team can grow and form a larger web of chasers

Kay meant to beat them to the punch this year—to hang a basket on her seniors—to avoid the “old and slow” look in front of the fans and puzzled visitors, but...maybe next season.

I received a letter from Brenda Baker and Hilda McCarley letting me know the tradition lives on in their family. They still hang baskets on neighbors and family members.

Homemade carmel corn and assorted candies fill the decorated box, along with flowers on top. I’m glad they mentioned that; I’d forgotten about the flowers.

Some people claim May Baskets are only for May 1, but that’s only the beginning for Brenda and Hilda. And get this: When May runs out, they toast little marshmallows and skewer them on toothpicks. These are called June Bugs and they’re placed on top of the candy and popcorn.

Morenci teacher Deb Hojnacki is a Monroe County native and she just didn’t understand the concept when she heard a knock on her classroom door and found a not-so-beautifully decorated box with popcorn and candy.

Her students told her she was supposed to run after the hanger, but she just thought they were nuts.

“Eventually the person who hung the basket came back disappointed and thinking I was the crazy one,” she said.

Ron Whetstone wrote a note about May Basket injuries. I can understand that. I remember mad dashes after the box was dropped and the greeting yelled.

“I still  have memories of the time Gary Teeter and I ran into the same clothesline wire after hanging a May Basket,” Ron said. “Another time I almost broke an ankle running through a plowed field.”

Barbara (Ford) Tadda wrote from Florida to pass along a column she had recently written for a hospital volunteers newsletter. She described the baskets this way: Cardboard boxes with woven strips of paper decorated with lace paper doilies and ribbons. They’re filled with flowers, candy, popcorn, cookies, and sometimes a short poem with the name of the person for whom they are intended.”

She figures the May Basket tradition lives on in Fayette where she grew up, but I’m not sure about that.

Keith Pennington was the first person to respond to my column, but I’ve saved his tale until the end because it might say something about how things have changed and about the future of May Baskets.

He contacted his neighbors, the Chittendens, about hanging a basket on Chris and Molly Merillat. Jeff contributed a venison sausage, so maybe he doesn’t quite understand how it works.

They took the basket to the Merillats and were quickly caught by Michaela. She was too fast and she was also the only one home.

On their way home, they decided to hang a slightly used basket on Dennis and Jody Owens. Nobody home.

They tried Tom and Robin Borton. Robin came running out of the house yelling, “I’m the only one here! I’m the only one here!”

She was surprisingly fast, Keith said, but it just isn’t quite as much fun with only one chaser.

“This must be why people no longer hang May Baskets,” Keith concluded. “No one is home.”

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