Event: May Day


May Day

Editor’s note: In honor of our friend and fellow writer, Jim Marcolina, to whom May Day is a very important day and for whom this May is a special month, we are featuring the maypole this week. The images which inspired this article were taken a couple of years ago at the May Day celebration at Ocean Song/Wheeler Ranch in the coastal ranges spanning Occidental and Bodega Bay California. While researching a new play in production, I was delighted to document and join the folk dance which felt, in stages, like being part of a giant open-air tent, later like part of a human loom, and finally like being enmeshed in a tangled cat’s-cradle. I vaguely remember participating in something like this in school, but nothing near the magnitude of this event, with a fifty-foot pole, live musicians, and scores of participants. 

For hundreds—if not thousands—of years, people have used a tall wooden pole as part of spring celebratory festivities. No one knows for certain where the maypole originally came from, but it has traditionally been associated with local May Day celebrations of springtime and fertility, occurring halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

May Day is a half year from November 1st, and is related to Beltane, a Celtic festival, and Walpurgis Night, a Germanic festival. We’ve been celebrating May Day since 240 B.C.E., with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and of spring. (Her name is derived from the Latin word for flower: “flos.”) These days, not many people have heard of Flora, but although she was a relatively minor Roman goddess (being only one of several fertility goddesses), her association with spring made her especially important at this time of year. Her festival, the Floralia, was held between April 28th and May 3rd, and was celebrated with drinking, flowers, and the renewal of the cycle of life.

Different countries had various customs celebrating May Day. In Sweden, they made bonfires; in Ireland, they crowned a May Day queen; and in Rome, they put on plays. May Day was also celebrated as Walpurgis Night, a Germanic festival featuring dancing and bonfires. May Day was also celebrated as Beltane, the gaelic festival of spring, when livestock were driven out to their summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle from harm, mainly through the symbolic use of fire. There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products, people, and to encourage growth.

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(Images:  Here the participants are unfurling the ribbons of colored cloth.)

The maypole was a tall, wooden pole erected around May Day (or at midsummer in some countries), although in some cultures the pole was a permanent town fixture. Again, no one knows for certain what the maypole’s origins really are, or even what it symbolizes. Some scholars see the maypole as a symbol of the axis of the world (axis mundi). Others see it as a remnant of the Germanic reverence for sacred trees, including Thor’s Oak, the Irminsul, and the Norse Yggdrasil. Other scholars have pointed to the maypole’s phallic symbolism, including Thomas Hobbes, and of course, Sigmund Freud. Others see the maypole as a part of the general rejoicing of the return of summer.

Whatever its origins, the maypoles of today are best known as symbols celebrating the first dat of May. Today, May Day is celebrated with flowers and folk dancing around a maypole. At one time, this dance marked the beginning of the courting season for young adults, and the Catholic Church banned May Day celebrations in the early 1600s. These days, like many holiday traditions, the maypole dance is mostly secular, and has dropped its original meanings.

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(Images:  Here you can see the progression of the weave on the pole being created by the dancers on the ground, weaving in and out in opposite directions.  Note the braiding.)

There are two main types of maypole dancing:  the ribbon dance, and the circle dance. The circle dance is now regarded as the most common and ancient form of May Day celebration. Some believe it to have a Germanic pagan fertility symbolism, although there is little evidence to support this. In the circle dance, dancers perform circle dances around a tall pole which is decorated with garlands, flowers, painted stripes, flags, and other emblems.

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(Images:  The dancers wind closer and closer as the ribbon tightens and is drawn to the pole until it is completely wrapped in colored ribbon, and the dance is done.)

The other dance, the ribbon dance, is now regarded as the most “traditional” May Day celebration, although the dance itself originated in the 18th century in Italy and France and was later exported to the London stage. The ribbon dance became part of the popular performance repertoire in London, and was taught across much of England. In the ribbon dance, dancers gather in a circle, each holding a colored ribbon attached to the pole. As the dance begins, the ribbons are intertwined and plaited either onto the pole itself, or are woven into a web around the pole. In some dances, the dancers then retrace their steps exactly to unravel the ribbons.

by Peter Rogers