The May Day Tradition, Through Their Eyes

An Overview

This semester project required me and a team of public history students to curate an exhibition surrounding the history of May-Day and its celebrations that took place here at Mary Washington University.

The Process and Our Goals

As a member of my team, I worked to collect witnessing objects and oral histories that connected the tradition of May – Day to campus life. Ultimately, my team and I found a wealth of images, material objects, and personal testimonies to share in our exhibition. It was our goal to design an exhibit that resonated with, and educated, current students. The artifacts selected aimed to enhance visitor experience by providing a glimpse into the feelings and thoughts of past students and faculty who engaged with the May-Festival. We worked to create an immersive and visually compelling display through a multi-sensory experience that drew participants in.

Mary Washington College, 1942, May- Day Celebration. From UMW Special Collections Archives.

Master Label

As the last vestiges of winter’s chill retreated, the blossoms of may sparked campus wide anticipation here at Mary Washington, for the May Festival was right around the corner. This event, once a campus grandeur, celebrated spring’s return from 1914 to 1968, before falling out of favor as an antiquated event. It featured joyous springtime festivities, including: music, maypole dances, and the ceremonious crowning of the May Queen. Although the tradition no longer graces the campus, echoes of its merriment linger on. Old photos, scrapbooks, and archived programs now offer windows into the May-Day traditions of the past. By exploring these relics, one can intimately connect to the experiences of those who celebrated May-day at UMW and uncover the enduring legacy of the May-Day tradition.

The Capsule

The following are the artifacts and interpretive texts we included in our exhibition. Enjoy!

Student Scrapbook

Creator: Mary Ayers Farmer
Date of Creation: 1929-31
Location in Repository: Private Collection of Jake Martin

Interpretive Text

It was a time of youthful bliss and flowering beauty during spring at the Fredericksburg State Teacher College. This scrapbook demonstrates this student’s early campus life blossoming while the college was a teaching school. Storing mementos and tales of her daily life, Mary Ayer Farmer’s scrapbook captures the spirit of May day and the festivities from which she was involved. Providing an intimate look into the lives of students here at Mary Washington, Farmer preserves treasured memories in a tangible and artistic form.

1931 Battlefield Yearbook, May Day Pictures

Creator: Fredericksburg State Teacher College 
Date of Creation: 1931 
Location in Repository: Private Collection of Jake Martin

Interpretive Text

The May queen and her Court pose for the camera, as an air of natural elegance becomes them. This image is telling as to who would be selected for these roles, as ‘beauty,’ intelligence, and campus involvement all played a significant role when culling the possible nominees. Their picturesque nature and rich garments give the impression of a flawlessly formed group, reflecting the values of the festival and in turn the campus at the time.

Richmond News Leader

Creator: Jane Stephens
Date of Creation: Tuesday, April 9th 
Location in Repository: UMW Special Collections Archives

Interpretive Text

‘It’s not even mid-April yet,’ writes Jane Stephens, but the anticipation for the May-festival has clearly already budded. Here, the preparatory needs for May- day festivities are listed. In writing this, Stephens demonstrates the spirit of the celebration, ok this letter gives an idea as to what was expected of the day’s festivities and overall gaiety.

Program 1917

Creator: UMW May-Day Committee
Date of Creation: 1917
Location in Repository: UMW special Collections, Archives

Interpretive Text

With the festival soon to be underway, students of the Fredericksburg State Normal School eagerly read what the day would entail on a program such as this one. After a regal musical entrance, students waited with bated breath to see the crowning of the year’s May Queen. As the crown rose, so did the spirit of the students. Carefully and skillfully choreographed dances followed and laughter echoed throughout the twilight of a warm May night.

1942 May Day, Dramatic Reenactment

Creator: Photographer Unknown
Date of Creation: 1942
Location in Repository: UMW Centennial Image Collection
image of 1942 Performace during the May Day Festivities. Person in dark robe and stripes at far left, acting.
May Day, 1942.

Interpretive Text

In this photograph we see the traditional celebration already in progress. Many typical elements of these ceremonies can be seen in this image, including flowing dresses, floral arrangements, a central throne (towards the back, hidden among the trees), and a performer in a unique costume, similar to that of the performers in old pagan May Days or in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” All the participants are dancing in this scene, with the strange figure leading them. The image displays community and revelry among the student body during the day’s festivities.

Yearbook Pictures, 1968

Creator: Mary Washington College
Date of Creation: 1968
Location in Repository: UMW Special Collections, Archives
May Queen sitting with her Court, black and white image. 1968
May Queen, Sitting With Her Maid of Honor (front) and her Court (standing, back). 1968.
The Queens court. 4 girls siting and standing in a row. Black and white image.
The Queen’s Court. 1968.
Quarter-Profile portrait of the 1968 May Queen
Sally Carlson Monroe, May Queen, 1968.

Interpretive Text:

These image immortalize the very last of the May Festivals here on campus. The queen and her court pose happily for the camera as they are regally poised in fashionable late-60s attire. The May Queen Sally Carlson Monroe and her maid of honor, Mary Margaret Martson are pictured. The rest of the court for the freshman, sophomore, juniors, and seniors are sitting poised and ready to take their portrait on the remaining pages. These photos offer a look into the tradition and the women who participated in it.

Program 1968

Creator: Christopher Ruth Wineholt, May Day Committee 
Date of Creation: 1968
Location in Repository: UMW Special Collections Archive

Interpretive Text

The late spring sun illuminated the already glowing face of the soon to be crowned May Queen as she stood poised on the amphitheaters stage. As seen listed within the contents of this program, contemporary songs replaced older hymns, and modern comedy stole the spotlight of tragedy. Still, students danced elegantly in a maelstrom of ribbons around the Maypole. As the sun lowered in the horizon, so too did the half century reign of the May Queen.

Maypole Dance, 1929

Creator: Photographer Unknown
Date of Creation: 1929
Location in Repository: University of Mary Washington “Then and Now” Photography Exhibition, the Centennial Collection, UMW Digital Archives
Students dancing around a MayPole. With ribbons, in a circle.
1929 Maypole Dance, Mary Washington College.

Interpretive Text

Gathered on Ball circle and merrily dancing around the May-pole, the students of Mary Washington demonstrate one of the festivities most anticipated events: the Maypole Dance. This joyful tradition embodies happiness and merriment, and the image provided creates a visual gateway into these emotions felt by the students. Having this visual of the Maypole dance safeguards the memory of this tradition, ensuring it lasts for generations.

Richmond News Leader

Creator: Mrs. Donald E. Ripley. 
Date of Creation: 1963
Location in Repository: University of Mary Washington Special Collection Archives.

Interpretive Text

Over generations, the May-Queen has consistently been celebrated as a figure of beauty and a symbol for the renewing of spring. However, this document places particular emphasis on the depth of her character, listing her hobbies, involvement in campus activities, and major aspirations. This letter also delineated the specifics involved with the dances for the evening and even the color scheme that was expected. This type of written analysis allows one to visualize both the look of the festivities and the people, and also recognize the individuality of each.

Oral History

Narrator: Marceline “Marcy” Weatherly Morris, class of 1950 
Date of Creation: March 28th, 2019
Skip to 29:00-35:00 for May-Day related content

Interpretive Text

Marcy Weatherly, the May Queen of her graduating class in 1950, talks at length in this interview about her life on campus- and her preparation for the honor of being crowned May Queen. Through her testimony, we are able to gain insight into the lives of the girls who went here years past, and the anticipation surrounding the festivities.

Conclusion

This marks the end of our commemorative May-Day content. For our Exhibit, we distributed flowers to visitors and played music for them from the May-Day programs. We also had little activities to partake in, such as our ‘role bowl’ that allowed guests to draw a ‘role’ and see who they may have been during the festivities, if they were still celebrated today.

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