Every year, you can celebrate the first day of May by watching dancers weave ribbons around a maypole. This tradition dates back centuries and is as woven in origin theories as the ribbons themselves. So, what is the history of the maypole and why do we still celebrate this festive holiday by dancing around it?
The Brief History
The tradition spans multiple regions with historical evidence tracing it to Rome, Western Europe, India, Latin America and Northern Africa. Historians may disagree on where and when it was first introduced, but there’s ample proof that links back to pagan rituals in Germany around the 13th century. Over time, the tradition likely spread and served either as a celebration of spring (or MidSummer in Scandinavia) or fertility for the season to come. What better way to celebrate the changing season, and the good fortune it would bring, than by dancing, singing and feasting underneath a colorful maypole?
The Meaning of the Maypole
Originally, the maypole was a living tree but over time it was usually a tree trunk of the correct height, age, and type (usually pine or birch). Some say that the tree represented masculine energy and the ribbons and floral garlands that adorned it represented feminine energy. And, those dancers who weave ribbons are either pairs of boys and girls with girls taking one color of ribbons and boys the other, or are instead a group of multiple ages where younger dancers will be on the inside of the circle while older dancers are on the outside. Either way, the maypole itself is a splendid reminder that spring has sprung and rebirth has begun.
The Tradition Today
Given that May Day celebrations are all about expressive dancing and celebrating, in 16th and 17th century New England, Puritans labeled the rituals bacchanalian, which naturally led to a general decrease in the celebrations during that time. But luckily May Day celebrations made theirs way back into the modern era and remain a symbol of the wondrous shift from the dreary cold season to the lively warmer one. You can find today’s most dedicated revelers in Scotland and Ireland where they recognize Beltane or Gaelic May Day, the UK and Bavarian Germany where the maypole is painted in their region’s white and blue and adorned with representations of the local craftspeople and trades. But you can also find festivities on this side of the pond as well. If you want to partake in this year’s celebrations, find out if your community or your child’s school has a festival or start a new tradition yourself in your neighborhood!