The first day of May is no ordinary affair at the home of 92-year-old Betty Peck.
The retired kindergarten teacher dresses up in springlike green, and opens up her sprawling backyard in Saratoga, Calif., to more than 150 friends, family and former kindergarteners who dance around the maypole in a tradition that’s gone on for what seems like forever.
Just how long has this maypole ceremony been going on?
“Oh my dear!” Peck said, sitting majestically in her chair, a green velvet cape wrapped around her shoulders, her white hair piled high on top of her head. “Since the beginning of the world.”
The dancing, fiddling, singing, clapping – all in celebration of May 1 – has been going on at Peck’s home for at least three decades, although no one can remember which year exactly the tradition began.
“It’s such a wonderful way to start the spring, this tradition,” said longtime friend, Andrea Campbell. “It just makes your heart sing.”
And singing there is. Peck’s backyard – which she and her late husband Willys Peck, a retired journalist and attorney, bought in 1951 – is always a special place, complete with hand-built amphitheater for community plays performed throughout the year.
On Thursday, the stage was used to host children and grownups fiddling and bursting into song. The sight looked as if the Renaissance Faire had descended on the Peck’s backyard, where the cheerful matriarch now lives with her 60-year-old daughter, Anna Rainville, also a teacher. Maypole dancing began as Germanic pagan fertility rituals, where people danced around a live tree for good luck.
Fiddle students of Lee Anne Welch look out from a perch at Betty Peck's 2014 May Day party in Saratoga, Calif., backyard.
“This is my favorite day of the year,” Rainville said. “Everybody shows up for an hour, on their way to work to have this magical, ephemeral experience. They dance, they greet each other and leave and go on to their other worlds. People come out of the woodwork – literally - down from the mountains. One family comes from Davis to bring the whipped cream.”
Tracy Anderson is part of that family, who makes the two-hour journey by car to come to Peck’s house for May Day. She’s been doing it for 17 years.
“This was the first maypole I ever saw in my life,” she said. “And I bring the whipped cream for the strawberry shortcake.”
Strawberry shortcake is served at Betty Peck's home during her 2014 May Day affair in Saratoga, Calif., backyard.
While the May Day celebration is indeed a special one, the Pecks have been longtime community activists, sponsoring many similar artistic endeavors over many years.
Betty Peck founded and taught at the Easterbrook Farm School, a kindergarten demonstration school now called Los Gatos-Saratoga Observation Nursery School. During her teaching career, she also started the Saratoga Community Garden, a now-closed educational organic garden for schoolchildren. Her husband, Willys Peck, who died in April 2013 at age 89, was a copy editor for the Mercury News, a civil attorney, and president of the Saratoga Historical Society. They also have a son – Bill Peck, 61, who is a teacher.
Their historic home and garden have been featured in books – the Pecks opened up their backyard for Thursday conversational "salons," and they used to let neighborhood children ride on a huge train in their backyard.
Peck’s granddaughter, Sarah Rainville, 24, is grateful that her grandparents’ backyard is the gathering place for such an exceptional and rare moment in time. And she hopes the tradition lasts forever.
“It’s just so wonderful,” she said, “to see old friends and new friends in this beautiful sense of community.”
Betty Peck overlooks the maypole dancing at her home during her 2014 May Day affair in Saratoga, Calif., backyard.