Putting up the Maypole, Frederick Goodall, 1850
Beltane and May Day
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
"The May-pole is up, Now give me the cup, I'll drink to the garlands around it ; But first unto those Whose hands did compose The glory of flowers that crown'd it." ~ The May-Pole, Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Sharing themes and rituals with the Ancient Roman festival of Floralia, May Day celebrations still occur all over the world. Dancing and merrymaking around the maypole (although the weaving of ribbons in intricate patterns is of more recent origin) was an older practice that came to be viewed as scandalous at various points throughout history and was even banned in 1645 by British Parliament after Oliver Cromwell condemned it as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness." Maypoles and May Day celebrations were eventually restored after the Restoration by Charles II, 'the Merry Monarch' who ensured the support of his subjects by erecting a massive 40 metre high maypole in London’s Strand. Dance while you have the chance!
The Maypole Medley
May 1st is May Day (Beltane, Là Bealltainn ) an important spring festival in many cultures. Though Beltane has ancient origins and customs, May Day rites such as crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a maypole, and dancing around it are of more recent origin.
In Britain the maypole was found primarily in England and in areas of Scotland and Wales which were under English influence. By the period 1350-1400 the custom was well established across southern Britain, in town and country and in both Welsh-speaking and English-speaking areas.
The relatively recent 19th century addition of the interweaving of ribbons held by the dancers at one end and tied to the top of the maypole in complex patterns, is signified by the interlocking and Schiehallion reels in this dance.
The symbolism of the maypole has been continuously debated by folklorists for centuries, being alternately seen as a relic from Germanic pagan tree worship, a phallic symbol of ancient spring rites, or as an anti-religious symbol.
In Britain, the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century led to increasing disapproval of maypoles and other May Day practices which were viewed as idolatry and therefore immoral. The Long Parliament's ordinance of 1644 described maypoles as "a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness."
Under the Reformation, many maypoles, such as the famous Cornhill maypole of London, were destroyed; however when Mary I ascended the throne after Edward's death, she reinstated Roman Catholicism as the state faith, and the practice of maypoles was reinstated.
In the United Sates, a similar suspicion of maypoles and May celebrations prevailed, most notably fictionalized in "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, included in his Twice-Told Tales. It tells the story of the colony of Mount Wollaston, or Merry Mount, a 17th-century British colony located in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts.
For a beautiful compilation of May Day and Maypole paintings, click the painting of Come Join the Maypole Dance, by Henry John Yeend King (1855-1924).