Some sixty years ago, when I was a little girl in (first) Milwaukee, Wisconsin and then in Edina, Minnesota, on the first of May we would make May baskets out of construction paper and fill them with whatever flowers we could find in the garden or growing wild. We would hang the baskets on the doorknobs of neighbors—especially old people—ring the door bell, then run away with great hilarity and peek out as the elderly person found the little bouquets on their door.
Thirty-some years ago, when we moved to Grafton, MA, I continued the same tradition with my three kids, but then they grew up and moved away. Just today I looked out at all the flowers popping up in our yard and reflected that all the old people in our neighborhood had died. In fact, I realized, the only old people left were my husband and myself, so I picked a small May Day bouquet for us out of what’s growing—white violets and purple violets, cherry blossoms, forsythia, wild grape hyacinth-- and here it is.
In 1977, when the children were all small (the youngest was one month old) we moved from New York City to a suburb of Athens, Greece, courtesy of The New York Times, which had made my husband a foreign correspondent there. In Greece, even today, whether in the country or the city, on May 1 you make a May wreath of the flowers in the garden. Roses are in full bloom by then in Greece, along with all sorts of wild flowers. You hang the May wreath on your door. It dies and dries and withers until, on June 24th, St. John the Baptist’s Birthday, the dried May wreath is thrown into a bonfire. The boys of the town leap over the flames first. In the end everyone leaps over the fading fire saying things like “I leave the bad year behind in order to enter a better year.”
Here is daughter Eleni in 1980 wearing the wreath that was about to go on the door. Next to her is her sister Marina.
In Greece, even today, you’ll find May wreaths hanging on the front doors of homes and businesses, although I don’t know if anyone still throws them into a St John’s fire. In Massachusetts, the tulips and forsythia are out, the bleeding hearts are starting to bloom, and soon the lilacs will open, filling the air with their beauty and perfume. But today I gathered a small bouquet of May flowers and remembered the years gone by.