The Maypole

The concept of the Maypole has been around for centuries. Possibly dating back to the 7th or 8th century when the people of Northern Europe introduced the Maypole to England.

Our ancestors viewed the Beltane Maypole celebration as a time for welcoming the spring as winter passes. To them the maypole was not just a representation of spring. It was also a focal point for Midsummer and Mabon. The Midsummer pole celebrated the ideas of continuity and community, whereas the Mabon pole represented a way to give thanks for the bountiful harvest and to signal the onset of winter. No research is available to authenticate what I am about to say, but I could see the pole being burned at Samhain to acknowledge the death of vegetation and the end of the year.

I have read in many sources that the Maypole was often constructed from the family Yule tree. The dance of the Maypole was not only a community affair but also a celebration by families as their Yule trees were stripped of their branches, decorated with flower wreaths and streamers and planted in the yard. Each family held its own celebration as a way to welcome in the May.

In Germany, on May Eve, single young men of the village would go out into the woods and cut down a fir tree; removing all branches except for the upper ones. Ribbons and flowers were placed upon the tree. It was then erected in the village square and guarded all night until the May Day celebration. They believed that the maypole represented the World tree. Its roots symbolized the underworld and its branches reached to the upper realms. Around Munich, the "maibaum", the community maypole, displayed the history of the village carved into the tree trunk. It remained standing for years.

The first Maypole in America was brought by the Anglican colony of Mount Merry, a group of the Plymouth Bay Colony Pilgrims. In 1628 they erected an eighty foot Maypole; danced, sang, and drank beer (or now a day beverage of your choice). Does this sound slightly familiar to anyone? Most information found on the Maypole focuses around the 16th century. During the time of Henry VIII, May Day celebrations included dramatic characters that took part in elaborate plays. The events of the day always concluded with the Morris Maypole Dance done to the tune of "Selliger's Round". A.C. Crowley described the Maypole dances of England in his book "The Maypole Dance" (London: Curwen 1891). In 1910, Walter Shaw wrote "Maypole Dances with Instructions, Songs, and Accompaniments" (London: Curwen 1910).

The merriment of the Maypole and its celebration met its demise in the middle 1600's. In 1644 an English Puritan, Phillip Stubbes, influenced the Parliament to outlaw the celebration because of its lavish behavior calling it a "stynkyng ydol". Even the Maypole constructed by the Pilgrims met its fate in 1628 when William Bradford sent out a military party to cut down the pole and punish its offenders. The 17th century wasn't all bad. In 1660 the Maypole was restored with the largest being erected on May 1, 1661 in London's Strand. It stood a whopping one hundred thirty four feet, and stood untouched until 1710.

Traditionally, the Maypole was a way to bring people together, whether family, community, or both. Our ancestors began their Maypole celebration by going door to door distributing springtime flowers and branches, and receiving tokens from residents. Reminds me of a springtime trick-or-treat. Then they would gather in the village square and dance around the erected pole as they welcomed in the May.

To erect your own Maypole, begin with whatever you are going to use for the pole. Make sure it is about longer than the desired height so that it may be well planted into the ground. An average pole is about 9 feet. Before erecting your pole, decorate the top with flowers or any greenery you may choose. Attach ribbons in multiples of four. They should be one and a half times the height of the pole in length. Traditionally the ribbons were red and white. Red represented the Sun God or the Mother, and white represented the Virgin Goddess or the Maiden. Brightly colored ribbons are commonly used for their magickal attributes as dancers choose a color to correspond with something they would like to weave into their life. A floral wreath of entwined flowers may be constructed to fit around the pole and placed over the ribbons. If you choose to do this make sure the ribbons are securely attached to the pole and that the wreath is not much larger than the pole or too heavy. As the dancers stretch out their ribbons the wreath is raised to the top of the pole and is lowered as the ribbons become entwined, symbolizing the union of the God and Goddess. The dance of the Maypole is quite elegant when preformed correctly, however it is not as easy as it sounds and may take a little practice to get it right. It is wonderful if you can alternate men and women, however as we all know this is sometimes very difficult to do. The important thing to remember is to have an even number of people. Two circles are created ; an inner and an outer circle. The inner circles faces deosil while the outer circle faces widdershins. This way the dancers face each other. Now the fun begins as dancers move their ribbons over the first person they meet and under the next. Continue dancing and interweaving the ribbons until the pole is clothed in a colorful array and the ribbons are too short to dance with anymore. If you have chosen to use a wreath be sure to keep the ribbons taunt to support the wreath until it has ridden down to the base of the Maypole.

As we dance the Maypole, we connect the energy of the Earth below and the Sky above. We welcome the rebirth of the plants that grow in spring. We bind wishes for our planet, and ourselves and we celebrate with the Lady and the Lord. So plant a Maypole and join in an age-old rite of Spring. Copy Writed by the Minnesota Pagan Press/Beltane 1999