A Practical May Altar How-To


Have a desire to honor Mary but not sure where to start? This how-to will guide you through getting a May altar set up in your classroom.

By Celeste Behe

Having been convinced that the May altar devotion is timely and meritorious, well-suited to high-tech classrooms, thoroughly curriculum-friendly, and relatable for all students, you are now ready to plan a May altar for your classroom.

The bare essentials

The first thing you’ll need is a surface. This can be a folding table, an unused desk, a short file cabinet, or an AV cart. You could even make do with a deep windowsill. As long as the surface is stable and accessible by the students, it’s a win.

You’ll probably want to cover the surface with a cloth of some kind. Not only will a cloth help to give your altar a pretty and polished look, it will also conceal the true identity of a file cabinet or AV cart. The cloth can be a tablecloth, a sheet, a pillow sham, or a piece of fabric. In a pinch, you can use a plastic tablecloth from the dollar store. A white or light blue cloth is preferred.

Of course, an image of the Blessed Mother is a must! A statue would be ideal, but a picture, an icon, or even a holy card would do. Try to avoid statues that are coarsely made and images that are cartoonish or overly sentimental. Instead seek out a beautiful representation of Our Lady that can elevate young minds and hearts, and help the students to do as St. Paul tells us: “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth” (Colossians 3:2).

Finally, you’ll need vases for your May altar. Vases can be of the store-bought variety, or they can be any receptacles that are watertight. Jars, bottles, toothbrush holders, candle cups (for short-stemmed flowers), cans with labels removed, creamers, and drinking glasses can all serve as makeshift vases. Spray them with chalkboard paint, then write love notes to Mother Mary directly on the vases. Here are some ideas.

Little things mean a lot

Make your May altar even more worthy of Our Lady with these extra touches:

Doilies:

Any project, no matter how homespun, can be prettified with the addition of doilies. A large rectangular doily may be centered on the classroom May altar with Our Lady’s image placed atop. Round doilies may be placed under vases. Small, heart-shaped doilies may be scattered on the altar with a charming effect. While inexpensive paper doilies are usually stocked by dollar stores, cloth doilies, both new and vintage, are often found in thrift shops.

Lights:

St. Thérèse’s mother liked to have “lights … arranged at Our Lady’s feet” — but then again, she didn’t have to worry about the fire code. Thankfully, battery-operated candles meet school safety requirements and are available everywhere, from grocery stores to home improvement centers. If surface space is limited, consider hanging a single string of miniature white lights behind or above the altar. For this purpose, decorating clips are just the thing.

Mirrors:

One of Our Lady’s titles from the Litany of Loreto is Mirror of Justice. Why not place battery-operated candles on small mirrors, and then have your class recite the litany? You might consider also sharing the fascinating story of the Holy House of Loreto.

Lattice:

At a retreat house I visited, a shrine to the Sacred Heart was backed by a piece of garden lattice that had been nailed to the wall, into which were tucked artificial flowers. Since most school administrators would likely frown upon a wall-mounted lattice, a more practical alternative is a freestanding lattice fence. The diamond-shaped sections of the lattice could serve as openings through which artificial flower stems can be woven. Adhesive-backed hooks attached to the lattice could provide a home for students’ rosaries when they are not in use. Medals, hole-punched holy cards and prayer requests, or the aforementioned banner and string of lights could also be hung from the hooks. The possibilities are endless.

Kneeling cushion/pad:

When I was in second grade, I was scolded by Sr. Anita for sticking out my tongue in class. My punishment was to kneel on my bare knees on the cold, hard, tiled classroom floor for what seemed like half the semester. Take it from me: Any student who feels inclined to kneel in front of Mary and pray a whole Rosary will think twice unless there’s something cushy to kneel upon. Dollar Tree sells foam kneeling pads in cases of 24, so each of your students can have his or her own.

Pads can be personalized and/or decorated with markers designed especially for use on foam.

It’s about prayer, not Pinterest

Of course, the most important thing about the May devotion is that it is a devotion. Here are a few of the more traditional ways to honor Our Lady during her special month:

Sing out:

Singing Marian hymns at Our Lady’s altar is a long-standing tradition. “Daily, Daily, Sing to Mary,” and “Hail, Holy Queen” are favorites.

Recite the Rosary:

Popular contemporary artist Donna Cori Gibson has recorded a sung Rosary that may be useful in engaging older students. For young students, a Living Rosary is a powerful, prayerful option.

Crown her Queen of the May

The veneration of Mary finds its most charming expression in the crowning of Our Lady, a joyous yet reverent occasion that acknowledges Mary as our own Queen Mother. If your students are not required to wear uniforms, suggest that they dress in their Sunday best. Uniform-clad students can honor Mary by wearing their Marian badges (see above).

The heart of the crowning is the procession to the May altar. During the procession, lead the students in singing “Bring Flowers of the Rarest”, the traditional hymn for May crownings. If you aren’t the song-leading kind, choose a rendition from YouTube, like this one, for the class to follow.

It is customary for one child to be selected to crown Our Lady, but for a more inclusive option, you can construct a chicken-wire crown for Mary that all students can help to embellish. Place the crown on the head of the statue (or, in the absence of a statue, in front of Mary’s image) before the day of the crowning, and on the actual day the students can process to the altar with their flowers and tuck them into the wire crown.

Celeste Behe is a blogger, speaker, and ardent Toastmaster. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her husband Mike and eight of their nine children.

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