May Day - A Spring Diversion of Blossoms and Pageantry in 19th-Century Bossier
With a timeline spanning centuries, and geographically stretching around the northern hemisphere, the holiday of May Day, celebrated on May first to revel in the arrival of spring, has had different meanings across time and place. Many traditions, however, such as dances around a maypole, crowning a May queen and gathering flowers for decorating and bestowing on friends and neighbors, remained remarkably consistent across centuries and oceans. This week’s column examines local May Day celebrations of post-bellum nineteenth century. Twentieth-century celebrations will follow next week.
May Day began as ancient, pagan Scandinavian and Celtic traditions celebrating the arrival of spring, and both derived from ancient Roman practices. Villagers would go “a-Maying,” picking flowers and secretly leaving them in tiny baskets on neighbors’ doors, crown a Queen of May and dance around a flower and ribbon-bedecked maypole. When these traditions arrived in the New World, Puritans forbade them as relics of paganism. But the holiday persisted in the U.S.
In the late 1860’s, during post-Civil War Reconstruction, May Day’s popularity got a boost among white upper-class Southerners. The April 20, 1867, “Bossier Banner Progress” professed that May Day would be the uplifting experience they needed to relieve their psychic wounds of defeat and perceived oppression:
“Since the beginning of the late civil war, the holidays have almost ceased to be observed in our section of the country. As an oppressed people, we have no hearts on 22nds of February [George Washington’s birthday] and 4ths of July to vaunt and boast of liberties and of the greatness of our country. We have never observed the Easter holidays, and Christmas has nearly ceased to exhilarate us.”
The absence of Easter celebrations was due to the fact that, according to Stephen Douglas Wilson in the “Baptist Press” (posted April 5, 2012), until the late 19th-century, and even into the 20th-century, Southern Baptist ministers dismissed the idea of designating Easter as a special day of celebration. They believed it was perhaps too pagan and worldly, and also unnecessary, since they deemed that every day should be a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. (Christmas as a holiday had been held in a similar light, though it had rounded the corner into acceptability just ahead of Easter.) So, instead of Easter in 1867 Bellevue, then the parish seat for Bossier and the home of the “Bossier Banner-Progress,”
“…our little community has determined to celebrate the return of Spring, which now tardily comes to enliven us after the extremely severe Winter just passed. The ceremony of crowning a May Queen, an old English custom, will take place in the fine grove at the Taliaferro old place, begin at the hour of 4 P.M. on the first day of May.
The follow-up report on Bellevue’s May Day festivities, printed in the “Banner-Progress” on May 4, 1867, was glowing:
The ladies of Bellevue, and its vicinity, under the leadership of Mrs. M.T. Shropshire, the worthy principal teacher at Bellevue Academy, gave the public a splendid ovation on the 1st day of May. The ceremonial of the crowning of the May Queen, was beautifully performed, the young ladies acquitting themselves with éclat. Profs. Fry and Bro., added charms to the occasion by discoursing sweet music from the violin and guitar. A splendid dinner followed, of which the large assembly partook with a seeming relish. At night a ball was given by Profs Fry and Bro., which without a doubt surpassed anything of the kind that ever took place in our village. The article concluded by calling it a “happy day, in which the ladies forced us to forget, for the time, the mournful condition of our country.”
By 1872, a similarly-flourished description of May Day in the village of Fillmore in Bossier Parish also appeared in the “Banner-Progress,” showing it to be a nearly all-day and night extravaganza. The May Day programs from other years in Bellevue also were highlighted in the newspaper. The holiday had “arrived” when the “Banner-Progress” even published a satirical piece about it on May 1st, 1884: “It is May Day, but we will not dance around any absurd May-pole, nor will we stand our daughters on the damp grass to decorate their heads with flower-wreaths and tell them that they are queens of the fifth month of the year.” The maypole, the article quipped, “had long ago given place to the telegraph pole.”
These celebrations, of course, described the social life of the white elite of the parish. These community celebrations were organized within private schools; a public education system had not yet taken hold, and educational offerings for African-Americans were even rarer. Next week’s May Day installment will focus on May Day’s significance in the 20th century, when it was celebrated within a broader swath of Bossier’s population, among both African-American and white children in public schools, often in connection with social reform movements.
Here at the History Center, we’re always looking for photos any other mementos from gatherings and special days (and ordinary days, too) in Bossier Parish. If you can't bear to part with treasured originals, we'd love to have the chance to scan your photos and paper documents. We can add the copies to our collection. The History Center is located at 2206 Beckett St, Bossier City, LA. We are open: M-Th 9-8, Fri 9-6, and Sat 9-5. Our phone number is (318) 746-7717 and our email is email@example.com
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“Around the Maypole.” Image from The Times-Picayune, Sat, May 02, 1896 “
Article by: Pam Carlisle