May Fete Through Carleton’s History

By Lea Winston ’22

Visitors attending May Fete, probably in the 1920s

Starting in 1912, May Fete began with a processional, in which the Court walked from Gridley, Laird, or Boliou to a throne on the hill. They were accompanied by a flower girl and a crown bearer, both of whom were children of faculty between the ages of four and six. The path for the processional was marked with lilacs or other flowers with white crepe paper between them. After the crowning of the May Queen, a Maypole Dance and other national folk dances were performed. 

The selection process for May Queen was quite involved and is well-documented in the Carleton Archives. First, 12 senior girls were chosen to form the Court, from which the May Queen would be elected. These girls were expected to “possess qualities of leadership, service, and friendliness and to have made a contribution to the college through service and positive attitude.” In order to select these 12 women, a May Fete Committee was formed by the vice president of the YWCA, the Dean of Women, and one (but later two) female representatives elected from each freshman, sophomore, and junior class. The Committee decided on the 12 girls to be honored, taking into account a vote among the senior class, which chose ten girls they wished to see on the court. At the women’s chapel on the Tuesday before May Fete or on the first of May, the names of the 12 selected girls were announced and all the women voted to select the Queen. Freshmen’s votes counted for only half a vote each, with the logic that they had gotten less of a chance to get to know the senior class. After counting the votes, the girl with the most votes was Queen, the second was maid of honor, the third and fourth were honor attendants, and the remaining formed the rest of the court. They attempted to keep the identity of the Queen secret until the day of May Fete. However, the press (Agol, the Carletonian, etc.) were let in on the secret in order to take photos and prepare press releases, and both them and the 12 girls were sworn to secrecy. As one might imagine, keeping the Queen’s identity secret proved to be quite difficult, and had varying levels of success.

May Fete coronation in 1914.

May Fete Court 1961

After the processional and the crowning of the Queen, guests turned their attention to the island on Lyman Lakes where the pageant was held. Throughout the years, the pageants included Greek tragedies such as Oenone in 1919, fairy tales such as The Enchanted Flute in 1925, ballets such as The Firebird in 1934, and works written specially for the occasion, such as the North Star Saga in 1955, which celebrated Northfield’s 100th anniversary. The pageant was directed by the director of physical education, as it was mainly a dance pageant. They all involved elaborate costumes and designs and a live orchestra. In case of rain, the high school auditorium was reserved for both the dress rehearsals and actual performance. After the pageant, a tea reception was held in honor of the Queen.

The heyday of May Fete was in the 1920s, when the event was attracting thousands of visitors from across the state. By then, the size of the pageant grew to include not only members of the YWCA but practically every woman in the college. In 1924, nearly all the Carleton women participated in the presentation of Siegfried the Volsung, which was accompanied by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. The grand finale included 125 girls in white tutus dancing the snowflake ballet. Five thousand visitors came to May Fete in 1926, which was based on an Ojibwe legend. This practice would certainly no longer be acceptable today. 

As the years went on, more and more events were added to the May Fete festivities. In 1933, an annual horse show on Prentice Field was included in the celebration. By the 1950s, the women’s synchronized group, the Dolphins, got involved. Their water ballet performances for May Fete included Hansel and Grettle in 1956, Showboat in 1955, and Holiday Highlights in 1959. An evening dance for both male and female students was also added. 

May Fete 1950s – 1975

After the World Wars, and under the presidency of Laurence Gould in the 1950s, some changes were made to May Fete, whose pomp and circumstance were seen as somewhat outdated. In October of 1955, Gould wrote to the Dean of Women: 

“For many years I have had the impression that it is a great deal like pulling teeth to get the cooperation necessary to have a May Fete. The old spontaneity seems to have been gone. If I am mistaken, I shall be glad to be corrected. Perhaps it is because I have seen so many that I find them so dull.” 

Later that December, Gould met with the Women’s League to discuss May Fete, and heard unanimous agreement from the women to continue the tradition. They were also quite insistent that the affair remain only for females, as it was the one time for women to shine, whereas the men were often featured in athletic competitions. Nevertheless, the pageants began to include both men and women. It was agreed, however, that the women would like to take on more responsibilities as regards to planning the day, which was at the time mainly controlled by the Physical Education department. 

In 1957, Gould again expressed interest in changing some of the traditions around May Fete, and this time the idea was floated of having a Festival of the Arts weekend. In September of 1959, a May Fete Revision Committee was created. According to a letter by Wayne Carver, their first meeting was quite contentious. The main questions raised were whether May Fete should be replaced by an arts festival, whether certain parts of May Fete should be combined with an arts festival, or whether the two events should both continue as separate entities. By January of 1960, the committee had come to consensus that the following recommendations be made: that the pageant on the island and the crowning of a May Queen be abolished, that the number of events be consolidated and reduced, that arts departments on campus schedule activities for the weekend in May previously known as “May Fete Day,” and that the name of the day be changed from “May Fete” to another that was more suggestive of celebrating the creative arts. 

The suggestion of eliminating the crowning of a May Fete Queen was quite opposed by the female student body, and therefore was not implemented. However, in 1959 changes were made in the selection of the committee and Queen. The size of the committee was increased from six to sixteen girls: two juniors, one sophomore and one freshman from each dormitory. The hope was to increase the representation of the court. Furthermore, the Queen was no longer referred to as the “ideal Carleton woman” but rather: “the senior women who the underclass women feel have been outstanding and who deserve recognition; that are selected on basis of service, but not necessarily office; that have made tangible contributions in those areas in which they are gifted.” The change was intended to make more women feel comfortable participating in the occasion, and was likely an attempt to involve more social classes in the festivities. 

In addition to changes in the selection of the Queen, the activities surrounding the weekend pivoted towards the arts, and the traditional pageant was eliminated starting in 1960. As a result of the pageant’s elimination, the festivities no longer occurred on the Lyman Lakes island, but rather, the Queen was crowned on the Evans terrace or lawn. Also in 1960, Honors Convocation was included as part of the annual celebration. This was potentially in further effort to increase the intellectual emphasis throughout the weekend’s activities. 

In 1964, the Court for the first time honored both senior men and women. That same year, the May Fete celebration more fully turned into an Arts Festival, which was titled “Mai Fete des Beaux Arts.” From then on, the French spelling of May (Mai) was used. Activities mainly occurred Friday through Sunday, and while certain traditional events such as the water ballet performance and tea took place, there were also lectures, film screenings, art exhibits, convocation, poetry readings, musical performances, and experimental plays. Despite the changes, the weekend was criticized by some students, and one called the coronation “a tragic comedy of errors.” As a result, 1964 was the last year a Mai Fete Queen was crowned, as the tradition was seen as antiquated.

May Fete 1964 

In 1968, Mai Fete ran Wednesday through Sunday as a full-blown arts festival. Then, in 1972, 1974, and 1975, Mai Fete coincided with Parents’ Weekend, and events were held Thursday through Monday. Not only were the performances now spread out over multiple days, but they used many different spaces on campus including the Great Hall, Boliou, Little Nourse Theater, Olin, The Cave, Concert Hall, and even the Science Center at St. Olaf. In 1975, the last of these official Mai Fete celebrations was held in late April over Parents’ Weekend. 

Mai Fete 1975 – Today

In 1976, the tradition of Mai Fete again changed, this time to become a day-long party on the island sponsored by the Carleton Student’s Association. Campus bands played, beer was free and plentiful, and students sunbathed and tossed frisbees. In the Carletonian, it was reported that “the combination of beer, hippies, and self-indulgent 70’s rock music spawned the celebration.” In 1979, Mai Fete again coincided with Parents’ Weekend. However, this time, students hoped to ditch their parents before enjoying the 15 kegs and five bands on the island. By the 1980s, the Carleton bands had formed a friendly competition called “Battle of the Bands” which occurred at Mai Fete. At some point around this time, the island on Lyman Lakes began being called “Mai Fete Island.” 

May Fete in 1983 

In 1985, the school’s alcohol policies posed a threat to the continuation of Mai Fete, as the legal drinking age changed from 19 to 21. Despite significant student opposition, this meant that alcohol was no longer served at events sponsored by the Co-op, such as Mai Fete. However, in 1988, students got permission for the alcohol policy at Mai Fete to mirror that of Spring Concert, in which students of legal drinking age could obtain an official Mai Fete cup in order to drink. Kegs were also allowed if they are registered and restricted to a fenced area, which students called the “keg garden.” As a result, Mai Fete continued throughout the 1990s. However, it seems to have dwindled in popularity. In 1995, May Fete occurred on the same day as Rottblatt, and a student wrote in the Carletonian “Who knows the point of Rotblatt or Mai Fete? These ‘Carleton traditions,’ a selling point in the Admissions Office literature, are gone and forgotten, for the most part.” Then, for a few years in the late 1990s, May Fete turned into the Marriott Mai Fete Carnival, which occurred on the Bald Spot. Lunch was sponsored by Marriott and the Carnival included cotton candy, Bingo, a Velcro wall and other activities. However, in 1998, students decided to donate the $1,500 that would have gone into Mai Fete Carnival to the Gustavus Adolphus College tornado relief effort. 

In the early 2000s, Mai Fete was revived as weekly parties with beer and fires on the island every Wednesday of Spring term rather than an annual one-night tradition. Each week different student groups on campus hosted the Wednesday party, which received fundraising from various student groups and was approved by Campus Activities. The week’s hosts were responsible for carding attendees in order to ensure underage drinking did not occur. However, the parties easily got out of hand. An article in the 2008’s Carletonian warned students to not drive their cars out to the island, to ensure carding of students in order to avoid facing pressure of restricting Mai Fete to the senior class, and to keep the island clean. 

Until 2010, Mai Fete seems to have functioned as these weekly parties, celebrating spring term. However, in 2010, the school’s alcohol policy was again changed, calling into question whether Mai Fete could continue. Under the new rules, if an event had common containers of alcohol such as kegs or punch bowls, the event had to be registered through Student Activities or Residential Life and the alcohol had to be purchased and served by Bon Appétit, the college’s caterer. As a result, liability for underagde drinking was transferred from the student host to the third party vendor serving the alcohol. This would significantly increase the costs of providing kegs at Mai Fete. Due to these policy changes, in 2010 Mai Fete became an event only for seniors, now with the addition of free pizza paid for by the college. Students also switched to providing cans of beer, the cost of which was covered by the student hosts, rather than kegs. Because beer cans are not considered communal containers of alcohol, they did not have to be purchased through Bon Appetit. Additionally, student hosts had to attend a training meeting held by the College to learn about social host liability and alcohol education. Despite these modifications, Mai Fete successfully continued well into the 2010s. By 2018, however, it seems as though these school-sponsored parties were logistically complicated, and petered out. It’s likely that difficulties finding seniors to host Mai Fete, issues with alcohol policies, and the desire to open the parties up to all classes eventually led students to abandon the traditional parties on the island. However, today Carleton students attend weekly parties every Wednesday night in a Northfield Option home called Porch, which perhaps is an adaptation of the Mai Fete tradition and an attempt to escape the College’s policies around parties and alcohol.