The first May Day celebration held at an accredited college took place at Earlham College, a women’s college in Indiana. From that moment, May Day celebrations began to appear at colleges across the country, especially in New England. These colleges were new, trying to appeal to a growing population of female college students. As is pointed out by Allison Thompson in May Day Festivals in America, “college administrators of the period actively encouraged the creation of college traditions… These administrators…saw in the development of school and individual class traditions a means to encourage solidarity and to create loyalty to the school.” May Day was also good business for the colleges. It was a built in marketing tool, helping to create a brand image for the college and encouraging visitors to visit during the festivities.
May Day comes to Colby Junior College
After its transition from an Academy, Colby Junior College quickly formed an Athletic Association, which was responsible for organizing the school’s major events, such as Mountain Day, the Winter Festival, and the May Day celebrations. In 1928, students researched “the old English customs, reproduced the crowning of a May Queen and danced on the campus around a Maypole;” the book they used, Jennette Lincoln’s The Festival Book, still resides in Colby-Sawyer College’s library collection today.
The May Queen
On college campuses, the May Queen quickly became a mainstay of the festival. At Colby Junior College, Marion Bailey of Kingston, Massachusetts was crowned the first May Queen in 1930. The student newspaper reported that “secrecy was often a key component of the process. In the early years, the identity of the Queen was often not announced until the moment of the crowning, and the suspense of the announcement was an important part of the whole celebration.”
Being crowned May Queen was considered a great honor. Write-ups appeared in local newspapers, describing the queen’s ideals and aspirations. For example, one Colby Junior College queen, “Nancy [Carpenter,] is a liberal arts student this year and holds numerous positions on campus. She is the secretary of the Young Women’s Christian Association and is also a member of the Interfaith Commission. She is also a member of Colby Key and is a senior counselor. To top it all off, she is a member of the Music Club. Last summer she was one of the counselors at the Colbytown Camp on Lake Sunapee.” This excerpt is a typical example of the description of May Queens throughout the years.
Dancing ‘Round the Maypole
During the May Day celebrations, Colby Junior College students, staff, and faculty members who wished to join in the celebration would travel to the May Day location, usually the front green or the President’s House, where there would set up a May Pole. Ribbons would be attached to the top of the May Pole and students would be chosen to twirl the ribbons around it in celebration.
The May Pageant
The pageant was put on for the pleasure of the Queen, often organized by a college’s physical education department. In the early years of Colby Junior College, “the entire ceremony [was] under the direction of Miss Hoban and Miss Mochel,” both members of the physical education department. In later years, the pageant was put on by the dance team or dance club.
These pageants were generally themed and featured classic May Day characters including Robin Hood and Maid Marian. One such May Day was described in a 1943 issue of the Kearsarge Beacon. “The theme of the pageant is May Days in England. The program is divided into three episodes, which are as follows: Episode 1—Early Days in England were thought to have held a magic and mysterious significance. Episode II—in the time of Robin Hood, and for sometime afterwards, May Days took on a new tone. Sherwood Forest provided the setting in response to the necessity for feast, joy, and merriment. Episode III—Today, May Day celebrations are symbolic of spring. Tribute is justly paid to the beauty, gayety, and freshness of the season.”
The End of a Tradition
As the years passed, the May Day celebration continued to evolve and, by the 1950s, a slew of new events had been added to the celebration. For example, a Key Dance, initiated by the Junior class of 1948, became a part of the larger dance. In 1956, a shipwreck party and bonfire was held on the tennis courts where the brand new Buzzin’ Dozen made their first public performance.
However, the appeal of May Day began to fade, both at Colby and nationally. The celebration at Colby Junior College was discontinued around 1956 only to be revived in 1964. Despite the revival, May Day’s time at the College was short. Between 1961 and 1970 changing perceptions of women’s roles and their attitudes toward their bodies emerged. Students also changed, becoming hostile to old conventions and traditions associated with white, elite privileges.
However, according to Thompson, “May Day survived longest in colleges that were relatively small, generally all-women’s, and frequently geographically isolated as well,” helping to explain why Colby Junior College’s tradition continued through the spring of 1970. During the celebration of that year, the students of Colby Junior College staged peaceful protests. The decision was soon made to discontinue the celebration.
May Day was an important tradition to the college’s community. Although it is now a somewhat unrecognized tradition, it remains an important part of the history at Colby-Sawyer College.