When I was growing up, May 1st was always a special day - May Day! My mom would help us to poke pipe cleaners through paper cups to make "May baskets." We'd fill them up with popcorn and maybe some M n' Ms or other little candies. Then the fun would begin. We would take them to our neighbors' houses, ring the doorbells, and take off running. We knew the tradition was that if the person caught us dropping off the May basket, we could end up getting kissed. But I can't remember that ever happening.
In school, May 1st was a great day because so many of the students brought in little May baskets or sometimes, very cleverly made candy treats, like an airplane made of Life Savers, gum and Smarties. It was its own little celebration, seemingly unconnected from any official, nationally celebrated holiday. We did often have a May crowning of Mary at our CCD classes that same week, but as far as our May basket tradition went, I wasn't aware of any religious connection at the time.
I remember how shocked I was my freshman year of college when I discovered that almost none of my friends (I think I had one friend from Nebraska who knew what I was talking about) had ever heard of a May basket, much less ever made one. It even merited a call home to my family, to let them know just how strange the rest of our nation was... imagine, growing up without May baskets! In later years, I occasionally made up a May basket for some of my friends, as if to prove that there really was such a custom.
Having left the Midwest behind years ago, May 1st has ceased to be much of May Day to me anymore, although my kids enjoyed hearing my stories about May baskets tonight during dinner.
Three years ago, May 1st took on a new significance to me, for this was the day that I passed my Ph.D. qualifying exam, officially becoming ABD (a Ph.D. Candidate!) under the patronage of St. Joseph, the Worker - a very appropriate patron by the way. Of course, St. Joseph's assignment to this day is a really recent addition to the liturgical calendar, meant as a Catholic counterpart to the (primarily European and secular) celebration of Labor Day (or Workers' Day) on May 1st.
We see in St. Joseph someone placed in various complex and difficult situations: marrying a young girl who is already pregnant (not by him), taking his wife on a census journey at the end of the pregnancy, fleeing the country for the safety of his family, and so on. Joseph was not independently wealthy, so in the midst of these events of life, he also needed to earn a living to provide for his family. Undoubtedly he must have felt some concern about how it was all going to work out, but he just kept working, toiling with his hands daily as an offering to God, but in a very specific way because he was Jesus' provider. In other words, he was working for Jesus - to keep him fed, clothed, sheltered, etc. But of course, none of this is worth much without also love and attention.
It is a good lesson for us: our work ought to bring us closer to Jesus, and closer to our families. What we do every day - from housework to dissertation writing - is an opportunity to transform our lives. With the intention of loving and doing God's will, our work becomes meaningful, even salvific.
So, given that it has been three years since I passed my qualifying exam, today marks something important: I now have only two years to finish and defend my dissertation.
St. Joseph, the Worker, pray for me!