Monday, May 6, 2024

May Day at Elmira College

by Erin Doane, Senior Curator

May Day is an ancient spring festival that originated in Europe to rejoice in the coming of summer. In 1902, Dean M. Anstice Harris started what would become a 65-year tradition of celebrating May Day at Elmira College. 

The very first May Day at Elmira College took place on May 2, 1902. The freshmen students were in charge of organizing the festivities. The event began at 4:30 in the afternoon with the campus population gathering on the green lawn next to the pond. First, the freshmen voted for a May Queen from among the sophomore students. After the queen’s name was announced, she was whisked away to be dressed in her ceremonial gown and robes. Once appropriately dressed, she returned with her court to be officially crowned. She took her place on the throne and the freshmen performed a May pole dance. This was followed by a general promenade and social hour before a picnic supper. The evening ended with a lecture by special guest Dr. A.F. Schauffler who presented “Ruin and Rescue” about his mission work in New York City.

Elmira College May Day, 1910s

The celebration was so well received that the second annual May Day festival followed the next year. The event grew more elaborate each year as the new freshman class worked to outdo the previous one. In 1907, there was a dragon and the personification of Winter terrorizing Earth and her followers. The May pole dance was performed by ten young women dressed as milk maids carrying bright tin pails. In 1908, the students had a luncheon at Watkins Glen to celebrate May Day. Watkins Glen became the preferred location of the event from the early 1910s through the 1950s.

May Day dancers, photographed by Fred Loomis, 1926

Each year the freshmen organizers chose a theme. Many celebrations focused on ancient Greek and Roman myths including the stories of Persephone, Diana, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Cupid and Psyche. Olde England was also a popular theme with traditional folk dances and music. Later, the themes became more diverse. In 1935, the students built their May Day around the story of Alice in Wonderland. The dancing and dramatic performances became quite elaborate. Faculty in the physical education department coached the dancers while those in the art department supervised the production of costumes and props.

Elmira College May Day, c. 1930, photographed by Fred Loomis

Music and dancing were always major parts of the May Day celebrations. In 1939, the organizers decided to try something new. Rather than using classic springtime songs paired with traditional choreography, they created modern dances based on Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” A newspaper report at the time called the performance “well received if untraditional.” In 1940, modern dance was paired with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Before the event, miss Catherine Finter, head of Elmira College’s physical education department, went on WENY radio to explain the meaning of the dances. A reporter with the Star-Gazette who attended the festivities reported the “most colorful of the abstract interpretations was that of the third movement –‘a succession of capricious arabesques which pass through the mind when one has drunk wine and feels the first touch of intoxication.’”

A preview of the dance program for Elmira College May Day, Star-Gazette, May 16, 1940

At the peak of its popularity, May Day was attended by upwards of 800 students, faculty members, friends, family, and community members. The arrival of the second World War, however, put a damper on festivities. Less ostentatious celebrations were held on campus throughout the 1940s. During the war years, more traditional American music and patriotic songs were added to the program. Post-war saw the celebration’s return to Watkins Glen and when Elmira College acquired Strathmont in 1961, May Day moved there.

May pole dance at Strathmont, Star-Gazette, May 13, 1965

By the mid-1960s the tradition was winding down. Rather than a major stand-alone event, May Day became part of Class Day. The last May Queen was crowned at Elmira College on May 10, 1967, thus ending 65 years of tradition.

The college replaced May Day with Spring Weekend, an outdoor festival with live rock music and alcoholic beverages. I myself participated in the very last Spring Weekend celebration in 1997. The following year, a new May Days event was created which had no connection to the earlier May Day traditions. The reinvented May Days is still celebrated today with a carnival on campus complete with food, games, and music. 

1 comment:

  1. What a fun event for the ladies of EC...Loved the pics