Since Medieval times, May Day and May Festival celebrations have been held to greet the arrival of spring. The European custom carried over to America, and of course to New Orleans, a city that never hesitates at a chance to throw a party.
Some of the earliest press accounts of local children’s May festivities appeared in the 1860s. A Grand Children’s Ball was held at the Opera House in May of 1866, with music, a grand tableau, and of course, the crowing of the May Queen. In the 1870s, schools and churches of varied denominations were repeating these scenes in neighborhood halls as popular fundraisers. Songs and recitations, refreshments, live music and comedy, and maypole dances were added to make more elaborate festivities.
Throughout the 1910s-20s, it seemed like everyone was hosting a May festival. A 1913 Elks sponsored party had over 500 children – many in fancy costumes – present to enjoy a full orchestra, games on the lawn, and maypole and other dances. This grand event, called the May Day Romp, carried on into the 1920s, often held at City Park, growing larger and more extravagant every year with the addition of Humpty Dumpty, clowns, free ice cream and sporting contests.
An equally grand annual event at Audubon Park featured maypole and spring dances, in which children represented flowers, fairies and sunbeams. Decorated bike and flower parades were also a big draw; 15,000 were in attendance in 1921. Tulane University also hosted an annual event on campus for faculty, staff and their children.
Starting in 1916, playgrounds took the celebrations to a new level, involving citywide queen elections and parades starting at City Hall to mark the opening of the playground season. Decorated bikes served as mini-floats, and the mayor’s office was always represented. Maypole dances would end the day.One final attempt to throw to a yearly citywide May Children’s Festival was hosted by the New Orleans Better Films Chapter. The first was held in 1937, and it ran for about 5 years; fundraising was intended to create a children’s movie theater.
While a few schools continued to host some May Day events, by the 1950s the tradition had largely died out.The Children’s May Festival in 1917 at Taylor Playground in Broadmoor. This bird of peace float was the third-place winner of the float contest.Image by John T. Mendes. Provided courtesy of the John T. Mendes Photograph Collection, The Historic New Orleans Collection, Gift of Waldemar S. Nelson. 2003.0182.99