May Day

"I was there..."

by Rosemarie Green, April 2001


Dancing around maypole on the May Day holiday in Golden Gate Park, May 2, 1932.

Photo: Shaping San Francisco


May Day 1935, Golden Gate Park, a happy family affair.

Photo: John Gutmann

With the approach of the merry month of May I recall the way the first of May was celebrated as a welcome to Spring when I was a little girl.

My mother had a fondness for this particular day of the year remembered from her own childhood as a native of San Francisco. She and her brother would gather Poppies, Indian Paint Brush, and yellow and blue Lupine from the lush green hillsides in the Potrero to fill May baskets, gifts for their mother and grandmother.

When I was in the second or third grade our teacher told us stories of this ancient custom of maying or gathering of spring flowers. We were all eager to follow this tradition so she decided to supply us with the materials for doing so.

She taught us how to cut and weave paper strips into charming paper baskets. When we arrived at school on May Day she had a big supply of roses, For-get-me-not, Sweet William and fern gathered from her own garden for filling the baskets. My mother loved this custom and made much ado over my surprise gift.

Special Spring celebrations were held in Golden Gate Park through the years and she attended many of them. Each May Day she would pack a picnic lunch and would take me and an invited friend of mine to enjoy the planned festivities. The site selected by the park supervisor for this yearly event was the extensive lawn adjacent to the Children's Playground. We lived near the park so could have walked the easy mile but for this occasion we generally took the streetcar in order to arrive early enough to secure a good seat to watch all the activities.

When we arrived after walking along the path that took us past the Merry-go-round, we were excited at our first view of white poles rising here and there within the open space bordered by tall pine trees. Attached to the top of each pole were a dozen or so colorful ribbon streamers now fluttering in a gentle breeze.

Off on the outer edge of the lawn and between the trees were a number of khaki army tents where little ballerinas were being dressed by their mothers in their crisp layered net tutus. In the final moment, these little girls stood impatiently in their soft satin dancing slippers as wreaths of pink baby roses were placed as a hair decoration.

With the fanfare and first notes of the Municipal Band, the chosen "Queen of the May," with jeweled crown and appropriately costumed in royal robes of purple was escorted by the Mayor and her several ladies-in-waiting to her golden throne on a raised flag draped platform.

After a few words of greeting from the Mayor, the queen decreed that the festivities should now begin..

The little ballerinas ran to their assigned poles. Each took up one of the streamers in her hand and danced around the pole stepping to the right in time to the music. With each turn around the maypole the ribbons formed a colorful braided design.

The dancing continued throughout the day as different groups took their turn in crepe paper costumes representing spring flowers, fairies, nursery rhymes and storybook characters or animals.

It was a lovely pageant and enjoyable for young and old..

Today, May Day is more often heralded in the news as a time for serious discussion by Labor Unions and their leaders concerning the problems facing the worker and the world.

Let us hope though that somewhere someone is still carrying on the tradition of the gathering of the flowers during the loveliest of seasons on its celebrated day.

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