The Tradition of the Maypole and the May Day Dance
One of the great traditions of Beltane is the Maypole. It is the focus of May Day celebrations across Europe and especially Britain where traditionally the boys and girls of a village would dance around it holding the ends of long green and red ribbons, braiding them together in an intricate and beautiful pattern until they all met at its base. For hundreds of years the Maypole has been a symbol of resistance to oppressive rulers as successive monarchs have alternatively prohibited it and reinstated its place in May Day celebrations but it has a much longer history and its origins are in the unknown past.
The month of May is named for the Greek goddess Maia, the Roman Bona Dea, the Good Goddess whose fertility festivals were held in May and was a festival for women only. Roman women brought the statue of Bona Dea, also called Fauna, to an all night feast in her honor where there was music, wine and games. But even though the name of the Maypole comes from the Greek, the tradition of the pole itself is thought to have originated among the ancient Germanic peoples.
The Maypole is a tall wooden pole erected on May Day as the focal point of the celebrations and even though the tradition of the Maypole has survived the Christianization of Europe its original meaning is lost to us now. There is much speculation as to what it represents including the axis of the world (axis mundi), a remnant of Germanic tree worship, the Yggdrasil tree and most recently it has been seen to be a phallic symbol. The latest thinking is that they are merely a part of the general rejoicing at the return of summer’s bounty much as the May Day garlands are.
Although the tradition of the Maypole has continued in Europe, especially in the villages of Bavaria, often it has been moved to the Summer Solstice celebrations in June. Another common practice is for young German men to erect a Maibaum in the yard of their beloved, often decorating it with garlands of red flowers and writing their sweetheart’s name in it. In Scandanavia the practice has continued in an altered form called the midsummer pole or midsommarstång.
But in the parts of Britain that are traditionally English the practice of erecting Maypoles has survived to become an essential part of English folk life. Villages compete for the honor of having the tallest Maypole and there are often thefts of the neighboring village’s pole and there are recorded instances where this led to violence. Over the centuries several monarchs and parliaments have prohibited the erection of Maypoles only to face defiance and eventual defeat and the tradition of erecting maypoles has always been reinstated.
Maypoles were often permanent fixtures in English villages and they prided themselves on the length of their poles. The tallest Maypole was at the Strand, near the current St Mary-le-Strand church which stood 130 feet tall until it was blown over in 1672. Even in the modern day there are many English villages that have a permanent Maypole as a fixture of their village.
The tradition of attaching ribbons to the Maypole and of the famous dance around it seem to originate in the 19th century when characters like John Ruskin were revitalizing the rural customs of Britain to encourage a sense of tradition and national unity. The simplest dance is done by pairs of boys and girls (or men and women) who stand alternately around the base of the pole, each holding the end of a green or red ribbon. They weave in and around each other, boys going one way and the girls going the other until the ribbons are woven together around the pole and the youthful merry-makers meet at the base. There are more complex dances, related to Morris dancing, for set numbers of practiced dancers called May Queen troupes, but gradually they have mostly been forgotten.
For a great archive of information and history of the Maypole go to http://www.barwickinelmethistoricalsociety.com/barwr10.html where there are dozens of articles and stories about Maypoles in Britain.