May Party Musings: Queens, Dancing, and the Most Important Day of the Year
Posted on June 01 2021
May Party seems like one of those traditions that we always did without fully knowing why, like Easter Eggs and Mistletoe. It was a major part of the Mount de Chantal Academy calendar, symbolic of summer coming, and a chance to dress up and have fun. You could feel the energy and excitement in the air almost as though everything, including the students, were blooming back to life after a long winter.
As a Lower School student, I can remember waiting in line just inside the gym door, anxious to see the May Queen in her gown and eternally jealous of the pages selected to attend to her train. To the small eyes of a second-grader, this was what true royalty looked like and I soaked up every glance. Inside the darkened gym, we’d enjoy dances and skits put on by the other classes and bask in the warmth of a shared school family.
I didn’t know why we had May Party; I just knew I loved every moment of it. I personally moved on to St. John’s Grade School in Bellaire during 5th grade, and though we still held a May “Crowning” it was a decidedly more religious affair. A May Queen was still chosen, but mostly as a stand-in for the Blessed Virgin, whom we’d celebrate with flowers and songs in honor of Mary’s dedicated holy month of May.
But the Mount’s was way more fun, even if, in retrospect, the Sisters likely knew they were sneaking in a Marian devotion among the finery and dancing. So, I wondered, why was May Party such a big deal? Where did we get these traditions from?
Here’s a few facts about May Parties in general:
- The Month of May is named for the Roman goddess “Maia” who was in charge of growth and plants. The Latin word, maiores, means “elders”, who were also traditionally honored this month. This might also be the reason we have Mother’s Day during May.
- According to History.com, “The Celts of the British Isles believed May 1 to be the most important day of the year, when the festival of Beltane was held. This May Day festival was thought to divide the year in half, between the light and the dark. Symbolic fire was one of the main rituals of the festival, helping to celebrate the return of life and fertility to the world. When the Romans took over the British Isles, they brought with them their five-day celebration known as Floralia, devoted to the worship of the goddess of flowers, Flora. Taking place between April 20 and May 2, the rituals of this celebration were eventually combined with Beltane.”
- The tradition of the May Pole is one whose origins seem to have been lost to history. Still, the tradition dates back to at least the Middle Ages when villagers would gather to dance around a pole clad with ribbons or streamers. Historians believe the pole symbolized – ahem -- male fertility, while the basket-like weaving pattern created by the dance symbolized female fertility cradling new life.
- No surprise here – the Puritans put a stop to the May Pole tradition in the United States as part of May Day celebrations, but the tradition of filling baskets with flowers to give to friends and loved ones on May Basket Day remained during the 19th and early 20th
Among the many finds I came across in my search for MdeC May Party treasure in the archives was an extremely delicate, hand-written copy of a May Party program from 1889! The program is on cardstock bound together by a pink ribbon, likely just large enough to slip one’s wrist through for easy carrying. A small button with the letters MdeC in a triangle is attached along with a smaller green and silver ribbon. I didn’t open it for fear of damaging this 132-year old keepsake, but we can imagine what that day, May 28, 1889, must have been like. I’m imagining bustled dresses, lace gloves, big hats, and lemonade on the Mount’s porch. That year, the queen was Edith Scott.
Also worth noting, the 1948 Centenary Book lists the name of every May Queen, starting with Scott. No May Parties were held between 1901 and 1913; a May Party was held, but no queen chosen between 1914 and 1931. Restarting in 1932 with queen Rita Papin, the tradition then lasted until the school’s closing.
What are some of your favorite May Party memories? Share them with us on Facebook or in the comments!