The first maypoles were humble pine trees, which were carried in processions to Ancient Roman temples to honor the goddess Flora and celebrate spring. In Pagan Medieval Europe — especially Germany and England, but also parts of Scandinavia and the Slavic countries — a tree would be cut down and brought from the woods into the village by a procession at sunrise, while horns and flutes played. The tree, a maypole, would be festooned with ribbons, garlands, flowers, wreaths, and other decorations to celebrate Beltane.
The Roman Floralia festivals lasted up to a week and featured games, theatrical presentations, and floral-wreath adornments. During the early Floralias animals were set free and beans were scattered to encourage fertility. At different times in history, Floralias and May Day celebrations were fairly bawdy affairs.
The holiday has always featured feasting and dancing, and often the crowning of a May Queen and King. In large cities like London, maypoles would stay up permanently. (For some time, May 1st was considered the first day of summer– and Midsummer was on our current summer solstice in June.)
In parts of England, and then in Puritanical America, leaders tried to do away with the Pagan holiday, but the charming, gentle celebration of spring had a way of staying appealing.
The maypole dance can be quite elaborate, as the dancers holding ribbons weave in and out of each other’s steps systematically, until the ribbon-covered pole is left with a specific pattern.
These celebrants in Glastonbury, England, look like they know what they’re doing and are having fun doing it.
See my earlier May Day post for instructions for making floral wreaths.
Happy May Day!
Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman