Happy May Day! An Insider’s Guide to This Local Iowa Tradition

If you’re not a native Iowan, then chances are you didn’t grow up celebrating May Day with May Day Baskets.  But that’s no reason to ignore this fun tradition! As a kid growing up in Iowa, May Day, or “May Basket Day” was one of my family’s very favorite holidays. It’s simple, kind, and just a little bit mischievous.

For those of you unfamiliar with this great little holiday, I’ve tried to answer some questions you may have:

When is May Basket Day?

It’s always celebrated on May 1st. The prime time for exchanging baskets is after school and before dinner time.

What are we celebrating?

May Basket Day is a way for children to celebrate the arrival of spring by surprising fellow neighbors and friends with small baskets of treats.

Happy May Day!  An Insider's Guide to This Local Iowa Tradition
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt receives a May basket of flowers from young children in 1938. Source: Library of Congress

How can my family take part?

Choose a small number of homes you’d like to surprise with May Day baskets. We typically bring baskets to our close neighbors with children and a new family in town.  

Preparing May Day baskets is simple – we typically use plastic or paper cups. We then punch holes in the top of the cup in order to attach a pipe cleaner as a handle. (Pinterest has some fancier cone-shaped basket ideas, but frankly, these aren’t very practical. Something you can set down on a door step or porch works best.)  Your kids can also decorate the cups with stickers.

Once our baskets are prepared, we deliver them to our neighbors’ homes.  This is by far my kids’ favorite part – sneaking up to a neighbor’s house with treats.

“I love that we have to run really fast and sneak up on our friend’s houses!” – my 9 year old

Then, the tradition is to set down your treats on the doorstep, ring the doorbell, and run away before you’re caught.

If you’re a child who receives a May Day basket, historically, the tradition was to chase after the giver until you caught them and kissed them.  My kids view this possibility with terror, and typically run their hearts out in order to not get caught. For anyone who may be concerned about this kissing tradition, for what it’s worth, I’ve been doing May Day baskets since I was a little girl, and haven’t ever seen anyone get kissed. It’s more like a surprise game of tag.

What should we put in a May Day basket?

We typically fill our baskets with popped popcorn and candy. You could also include non-edible treats or flowers. One of the things I like most about May Basket Day is that it’s not a commercial holiday. There’s genuinely no pressure to fill baskets a certain way. It’s still just a fun, simple surprise. 

How can I find out more?

Here are a few resources if you’d like to know more about May Basket Day.

If you’re new to this tradition or to the area, I hope you’ll take time to ring a doorbell with your kids this year. Or maybe you’ll even receive a May Day basket of your own!  Happy May Day!

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