By Rachel Ohrenschall
The blossoming of trees throughout the campus, albeit early this year, signals the start of spring, the end of the semester and its climax: May Day. Initially celebrated across many cultures in the northern hemisphere as a festival to celebrate the coming of spring and the end of the planting season, May Day has long been a celebration associated with flowers, femininity, rebirth, May Poles and dancing. May Day at Bryn Mawr, however, actually started as a fundraiser.
In March 1900, a few Bryn Mawr seniors came up with the idea of an Elizabethan May Day to raise money for the proposed students building, according to a thesis entitled, “Big May Day at Bryn Mawr” by Margaret A. Hoag and Salima Ikram. The festival, held on May , included four oxen, nine worthies—comprised of historic figures such as Charlemagne—a lady of the May on a white donkey, Queen Elizabeth and a May queen. Three to four thousand spectators paid $2 (worth approximately $50 today) to enter the festival via Rock Arch. From then on May Day was a tradition, with the first “little” May Day in 1903 and the next “big” May Day in 1906 and every fpur years after that.
According to a dissertation written by Victoria Briscoe on Bryn Mawr’s traditions, May Day’s basic structure (the parade, the May Pole dancing, the plays and other traditions) have been very similar throughout its history and were indeed started at the first May Day in 1900. Fresh whole strawberries and cream were always served for breakfast, though for a time in the 1920s, the school served chopped beef as well. Only a few parts of May Day are newer inventions. Hoop rolling was an invention of the ’20s, and the May Hole an invention of the ’60s or ’70s.
The major change in May Day throughout the years is the amount of attention and time the student body has put into it, which has decreased since the Grand May Day in 1936. By 1924 there were mutterings among the student body that May Day had become too commercial, and the emphasis on a highly professional, for-profit production meant that the opportunity for student involvement was less. As early as January of 1924, plays were selected, casting started and folk dancing classes also introduced for those who were to dance around the May Pole. In March and April that year, 380 costumes were made and the community bought tickets well in advance. All other extracurricular activities in the college had been suspended for the entire semester and the profits cleared between $4,000 and $5,000 (worth $50,553 to $63,000 today).
According to Briscoe, “the organization of an event as large and complex as May Day required the most extraordinary kind of cooperation among all people involved; it is amazing that Bryn Mawr was able to command the energies and loyalties of so many of its members for the 36 years during which the big May Day tradition continued.”
Indeed this statement is validated by the sheer size of the Grand May Day in 1936. Bryn Mawr sent out 10,000 invitations, made 15,000 paper flowers to festoon the floats and May Poles and sewed 700 costumes; a professional coach choreographed the May Pole dancing.
“After the Easter vacation the atmosphere on the campus will probably be unfavorable to serious scholarly attempts,” the Dean of the College at the time said in February 1936. By the fall of 1936 students openly criticized that year’s May Day for its aura of professionalism and the fact that each successive Grand May Day tried to outdo the previous, causing unnecessary stress. During World War II, May Day was postponed and in the years following, there was not another Grand May Day until 1978. No modern Grand May Day has ever reached the scale of that in 1936.
May Day was very much a social scene in its early beginnings, as Hoag and Ikram explain.
“Newspaper reviews from 1900 onwards describe a lavish ostentatious fete given by 400 wealthy, elite girls,” their thesis said. Many famous and wealthy people came to see May Day; in 1928 patrons of May Day included foreign ambassadors and ministers, Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, Supreme Court justices and U.S. senators. This movement away from a society event is another major change between the old Grand May Days and modern May Day.
More interesting is the correlation between changes in May Day and the evolution of Bryn Mawr as a college. Hoag and Ikram said of May Day’s evolution that “by abandoning big May Day, [Bryn Mawr] could shed the finishing school image.”
Bryn Mawr as a college has gone through similar transformations through its history, and its history can be told through May Day. For example, during the ’60s, an era which had closer bi-co relations, Haverford students attempted many times to steal the May Poles. Anti-war demonstrations in the ’70s took place on Taylor Steps during May Day, and the invention of the May Hole during the second wave of feminism in the sixties and seventies follow this trend of Bryn Mawr becoming a more radical and socially aware campus.
May Day is a tradition Bryn Mawr has appropriated and made its own, according to Alexandra Spear, BMC’13, one of the heads of the “Sacrifice for a Sunny May Day.” The night before May Day, Mawrtyrs gather to implore Athena to give us good weather for May Day by sacrificing a piñata, an example of Bryn Mawr’s twist on a traditional holiday.
Spear acknowledges that it is a fun and silly tradition, but this is one of the unique things about traditions at Bryn Mawr: they can be fun and silly, as well as important to school unity. This year, as an added dimension of silliness, the only animal-shaped piñata available was a bust of Scooby Doo.
“We are just going to roll with it,” Spear said. “It’s just one of those things life throws at you.”
If the Scooby-Doo-piñata-sacrifice is not enough to stop the rain on May Day this year, it may not be the end of the world, according to Blair Smith, BMC’12, one of last year’s Traditions Mistresses.
“When it rains it’s more magical, but it’s awesome whether it’s raining or shining,” she said with a smile, adding that this year’s traditions mistresses have something exciting planned this year.
As a freshman about to experience May Day for the first time, this author asked Smith what makes May Day unique among all of Bryn Mawr’s traditions. Why do so many Mawrtyrs proclaim May Day as their favorite tradition, and what is the source of the mystical wonder and adoration that can be seen in the eyes of Mawrtyrs speaking about the event?
Smith notes that May Day is unique because it is primarily a celebration, not only of the end of the semester and classes but also of the coming of spring. It is also the tradition that brings everyone together, alumni and non-alumni. May Day is a part of Bryn Mawr you celebrate with everyone; the bi-co and other surrounding community members are welcome. This inclusivity is another unique aspect of May Day, and as Smith acknowledges, is refreshing after “Hell Week as an institutional individual thing.”
When asked if she is nostalgic about her senior year May Day, and saying good bye to her time at Bryn Mawr Smith explains that “there hasn’t been a May Day where I haven’t cried.” She explained that alumni association clubs hold their own May Day celebrations all across the country, and she can therefore celebrate May Day in the future, or even come back to Bryn Mawr to celebrate May Day. This is the joy of the tradition–May Day existed historically beyond Bryn Mawr, and now it exists for Mawrtyrs beyond their four years at Bryn Mawr. May Day is forever.