Bringing back May Day baskets to Carleton County

·4 min read

Karen "Kippy" Taylor and Fay Milbury probably have plenty in common. Still, the Woodstock women are positive they share one common trait — fond childhood memories of a Carleton County tradition.

They recall that delivering handmade May Day baskets on May 1 was an annual tradition in Woodstock and surrounding communities, especially during their younger years.

Over the past decades, Woodstock's May basket tradition, based on a centuries-old practice which most historians believe began in Germany, declined significantly.

Milbury said she returned to making the May baskets on a larger scale during the COVID lockdown. Like most people, she was stuck at home and unable to visit friends or take in social activities.

She said delivering her May baskets to the doors of friends and acquaintances between Debec and Kent helped her pass the time and say hello and thank you to others.

Taylor, board chair of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Carleton York (BBBSCY), also recognized the baskets as an ideal way to thank all the people and businesses supporting the non-profit organization.

"What a way to spread cheer," she said.

Together, Taylor, Milbury and others formed a plan to rekindle May Day baskets in the region.

On April 20, BBBSCY hosted a class at the AYR Motor Centre, where Milbury and her friend Judy Clark shared their skills at making the tissue-paper baskets. The turnout, which included several bigs and littles from the organization, proved the seeds of the tradition remained strong. It just needed a little extra attention to grow.

The AYR Motor Centre also added May basket making as one of its crafts in its after-school program.

On Wednesday, April 26, Milbury, Taylor and BBBSCY executive director Brittney Toner visited council chambers at Woodstock town hall to present a May basket to Mayor Trina Jones.

The mayor is highly familiar with both May baskets and BBBSCY. After all, she is Milbury's daughter and a mentor for the organization.

Jones happily accepted the blue and white May basket, representing BBBSCY's colours, from her mother and praised the efforts of everyone involved.

Taylor said they would begin delivering May baskets to downtown Woodstock merchants and other neighbourhoods in the days leading up to Monday, May 1.

"It's a way to say thank you," she said.

With no government funding or grants, Taylor explained the organization has relied on community support since its establishment over 40 years ago.

In recognition of its anniversary, she said, BBBSCY established the 40 for 40 initiative, which reached out to 40 businesses, individuals and organizations to commit to hosting 40 fundraising events raising at least $1,000 each.

The initiative proved successful, as have the organization's many significant fundraisers over the past four decades. She explained the May baskets are not a fundraiser but in appreciation of the community's ongoing support.

"And we're very grateful to Fay and Judy, who kindly devoted their time," said Taylor.

Milbury has remained busy in the lead-up to May 1, saying she made over 300 baskets, including 150 for BBBSCY.

"That's not counting my own baskets," she said.

Milbury and Clark plan their own deliveries, including a trip to Riverside Court, a senior complex in Woodstock, where they have a basket for each resident and staff member.

Plus, Milbury will also make her personal deliveries.

Milbury's and Taylor's childhood memories share much in common but differ slightly.

Milbury recalled a tradition when the one making the delivery would knock on the door, leave the basket and yell "May basket" as they left. If a boy in the house came to the door, he could chase the giver down and kiss them on the cheek, she added with a smile.

"We'd pick the houses with the cute boys," she laughed.

While Taylor doesn't recall that part of the tradition, some historians noted young men with a particular interest in a young woman living in a home would leave a May basket containing flowers.

Milbury said people could leave various items, whether a small gift, candy or even a rock, to keep it from blowing in the wind. The act is more about letting people know you care and think about them.

Taylor and Milbury said the May basket tradition, even in its heyday, seemed confined to the Carleton County region of New Brunswick. Taylor said most people who move to the area are unaware of the tradition.

Milbury said her grandfather, a British Home Child, brought the tradition from the UK.

While Woodstock's May baskets are stylishly designed using tissue paper, the types of baskets vary widely around the globe.

The single common aspect celebrates the arrival of the growing season.

BBBSCY's May Day baskets include a card tied to the handle explaining the purpose. The front states, "Celebrating May Day" and includes the organization's logo. The other side, also containing the logo, includes a small verse called "May Day," credited to Molly Walton.

"Such a beautiful and gracious custom

Somehow lost along the way

But the memories still linger

As we welcome in the May."

Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun