The month of May at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is most notable for Mom’s Weekend and campus commencement celebrations, but one campus tradition of yore, the annual May Fete, was an event enjoyed by both mothers and graduating seniors. The May Fete was founded in 1899 when a group of 24 women students danced around a May pole in a campus peach orchard. May Fetes were celebrated on Mother’s day weekend each year until [1942?]–save for some years impacted by war–and were led by senior women in the University’s physical education department. The tradition is likely the catalyst for Mom’s Weekend, which is still observed on campus each year.
The University’s May Fetes were pagan in nature and often mythical and folkloric. Many were themed around a specific story, country, or culture. For example, the 1917 May Fete was Greek-themed, the 1919 May Fete invoked a “Japanese sun festival,” and the 1920 May Fete resembled an Old English countryside festival. Regardless of theme, all celebrated and welcomed the springtime.
Events were organized by the University’s department of physical education for women (and, starting in 1923, by the Woman’s Athletic Association) and were held at Illinois Field (now Memorial Stadium). An admission (10-50 cents depending on the year) was charged and proceeds benefitted the department, though some years, proceeds went to war relief efforts.
Fetes consisted of outdoor group and individual dances, often story-based and full of elaborate costumes. Dances were conducted by University women (mostly students but in later years, faculty, too) and were accompanied by music from the Illini band. Many years featured a traditional May pole in which senior students, donning caps and gowns, would have the honor of twining the May pole chain.
The number of University women involved in the May fete peaked in the early 1920s with around 1,200 participants. With the transfer of administration in 1923, participation in May Fete celebrations became more exclusive and students would need to try out to be selected as a dancer.
It was not unusual to cancel a May Fete, especially during wartime. Some years saw events, such as field days, operas, and circuses, which took the place of the annual May Fete. The tradition seemingly fizzled in the 1930s and was likely ceased in the early 1940s. There are no articles on the May Fete in the Daily Illini after 1942 except to suggest that the event inspired the University’s Mom’s weekend, and event still held today.
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