If you’re one of my Minneapolis readers, you have probably at least once attended the Powderhorn Mayday Parade and festival put on for 45 years by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater on the first Sunday in May. My family has attended most years since sometime in the late 1990s; I’ve been in the parade with my kids twice. Everything in the parade is human-powered, and the puppets and costumes were overwhelmingly made by participants out of materials like papier-mache, under the guidance of teaching artists hired by Heart of the Beast.
After the parade is the pageant. I used to go to the pageant, but got out of the habit when my kids were young and squirrely. The time lag between parade and festival is substantial, especially if you’re watching near the northern end of the parade (which we always did because it’s so much less crowded the further north you go) and we liked bringing chairs to sit on, which we then had to either return to the car (always parked miles away) or carry to the park (ugh) and we liked the parade better than the pageant anyway. The pageant is a performance done at Powderhorn Park that finishes with a flotilla of boats bringing a giant puppet of the sun across the lake.
Once the sun puppet arrives, it’s raised up, along with a giant Mayday pole that’s also a tree of life, and the audience sings “You Are My Sunshine.”
One of the things about Mayday that nearly everyone who goes agrees on is that it’s clearly magic. The weather for the parade is not always great. I’ve watched it in both rain and snow. (I’ve also bailed a few times because the weather was so miserable.) But when they row the sun across the lake, no matter how bad the weather was earlier, the sun comes out. It’s uncanny.
The Mayday Parade and Festival is enough of an iconic Minneapolis event that you can make reference to rowing the sun across the lake, and expect people to understand what you’re talking about.
Last year, Heart of the Beast announced that they were taking a year off. So there wouldn’t have been a parade this year even without a pandemic. It may possibly return next year.
Back in 2017 or 2018 I worked on a sequel to “So Much Cooking,” my story about cooking during a pandemic. I didn’t get very far, and for various reasons I don’t think I’m going to ever return to it, but the bit I wrote included a section about a post-pandemic Mayday Parade, which I’ve decided to share on my blog. Please consider donating to HotB — which was already struggling, and like all arts organizations, has been hit really hard by the pandemic.
Story excerpt is below the cut.
Minneapolis has a Mayday Parade that’s really not like anyone else’s parade.
Normally, the parade gets built by volunteers at the Heart of the Beast theater. They have artists on staff who teach you how to do papier-mache to make the mask or puppet or whatever it is you’re going to wear or carry. They have themes for each section and they’ll have a specific plan for costumes and puppets in that section, and the artists will help you make and paint a mask to look like a bluebird. Or a butterfly. Or a morel mushroom. Or an eggplant. You know, whatever.
This year they couldn’t build on site until April, so they had information on their website with instructions for costumes that people could make at home, and most of the people in the parade had just worked on their own until mid-April when the last of the restrictions got lifted.
The theme was not officially “hey, we all survived a pandemic” but that really was what the parade was about this year. There were people dressed as viruses (they wore sandwich board type things made from cardboard, with a fringe cut in. Like the virus graphics on the PSA about handwashing that went up everywhere right before we all learned the phrase “social distancing.”) And people dressed as the body’s immune response. (White blood cells! T and B lymphocytes! One of the community bands played the Star Trek fight song, you know, the song from the original Star Trek that plays in the background every time Captain Kirk gets in a fight, while the white blood cells vanquished the virus. If that doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what to tell you, other than, you should come sometime and see the parade in person!)
A lot of the parade was honoring people who’d kept us all alive. There was a whole section of nurses – this parade honors unions, too, so they had signs for the MNA and the SEIU Healthcare union, and people marched in their scrubs. Behind all the nurses in the parade were people carrying big photographs of nurses and health care workers who died, like Kat, because they kept going to work.
Kat loved this parade. We go every year as a family, and I was there with Leo, Monika, and Jo. When I saw the nurse section I was worried that Jo would get really upset, but instead she started trying to spot Kat’s name. The woman who was carrying it saw Jo and Monica pointing and came over to talk for a minute and give them each a white carnation. (There were wheelbarrows full of white carnations that the people in the parade were giving out to anyone who looked like they were grieving.)
She offered one to me, too, and I said, “no, you know what, you’ve got a long way to go before you get to Powderhorn Park. I don’t want you to run out.”
She put her hands on my shoulders and looked in my eyes and said, “We’re not going to run out.” And then she handed it to me and this time I took it.
There was also a section of the parade with the UFCW, honoring the grocery workers who packed and delivered food, and they had people in that section who were dressed up as groceries. One guy was dressed up as an egg carton, and he was running around while someone chased him with a net, that was pretty hilarious.
Then we went to the pageant in the park after the parade and watched them row the sun across the lake.
I’d meant to make dinner in the crock pot so it would be ready before I got home from the parade. And, I mean, I put dinner in the crock pot. But I forgot to turn it on. So dinner was pizza rolls out of the freezer, instead. (I have a really well-stocked freezer these days. Like, I keep buying stuff. It’s maybe possibly not entirely healthy.)
After dinner I e-mailed all the pictures I’d taken at the parade to Arie, who’d asked for them. He and his mother lived right on Bloomington Avenue.
This just made me ugly cry.
The first time I saw the may day parade I ran ahead of it over and over so I could keep seeing it. Since 2002 we have lived on the parade route and we always have a massive party. The first year we lived here people came who meant to be at the previous owners may day party. The year I cancelled the party because we were in the parade, our friends showed up and there was a party anyway.
Yesterday, there was both HotBs lovely online may day and small bits of independent parade – tall bikes, art cars, people in costumes.
There is so much prescience in this excerpt. Thank you for sharing.