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Dancing around the maypole, in Åmmeberg, Sweden

The maypole is a tall wooden pole (traditionally of maple (Acer), hawthorn or birch) erected to celebrate May Day or Midsummer. It may be a semi-permanent feature, standing in position year-round until it has to be repainted or replaced, or it may be a shorter, temporary structure. It may be decorated with several long coloured ribbons suspended from the top, festooned with flowers, draped in greenery, hung with large circular wreaths, or adorned with other symbols or decorations, depending on local and regional variances.

With roots in Germanic paganism, the maypole traditionally appears in most Germanic countries, Germanic country-bordering and countries invaded by Germanic tribes after the fall of the Roman Empire (such as Spain, France and Italy), but most popularly in Germany, Sweden, Austria, England, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Finland in modern times for spring, May Day, Beltane, and Midsummer festivities and rites.

What is often thought of as the "traditional" English maypole (a somewhat shorter, plainer version of the Scandinavian pole with ribbons tied at the top and hanging to the ground) is a relatively recent development of the tradition, probably derived from the picturesque, Italianate dances performed in mid-19th century theatricals. It is usually this shorter, plainer maypole that people (usually school children) perform dances around, weaving the ribbons in and out to create striking patterns.

May Day: villagers near Munich lift their very tall maypole into place

Contents

Regional traditions

Denmark

In Denmark the maypole tradition is almost extinct but is still observed on the islands of Avernakø and Strynø south of Funen and in a few villages in southern Himmerland in eastern Jutland. The maypole is generally referred to as a majtræ, "May tree".

A maypole at the Viktualienmarkt in Munich, Germany

Germany

The maypole is a tradition going back to the 16th century. [1]

Sweden

In Sweden and Swedish speaking parts of Finland, the maypole is usually called a midsummer pole, midsommarstång, as it appears at the Midsummer celebrations, although the literal translation majstång also occurs. The traditions surrounding the maypoles vary locally, as does the design of the poles, although the somewhat phallic design of a cross with two rings is most common nowadays. A perhaps more original incarnation is the one still in use in the Swedish landscape of Småland where the pole carries a large horizontally suspended ring around it, hanging from ropes attached at the top of the pole. This perhaps more original form of course strongly reinforces the procreation symbolism. The cross-arm may be a latter-day attempt to christianize the pagan symbol into the semblance of a cross, although not completely successful. Common in all of Sweden are traditional ring dances, mostly in the form of dances where you are alternating dancing and making movements and gestures based on the songs, such as pretending that you are scrubbing laundry while singing about washing, or jumping as frogs during the song Små grodorna ("The little frogs"). The ring dancing is mostly popular with small children. The central part played by young children in the celebration emphasize the procreation aspect of the celebration. Yet another pointer in this direction is the custom that young maidens expect to dream of their future mate if they pick flowers and place them under their pillow when they go to bed on this day only.

England and Lowland Scotland

Villagers and Morris-men dancing beside the Maypole on Ickwell Green, Bedfordshire at dawn on 1st May 2005

In the 16th century, maypoles were communal symbols, being erected as group activities by a parish (or by several parishes in concert if they did not have the means to do so individually). They were often the focus of rivalries between villages, who would steal one another's poles. (In Hertfordshire in 1602 and in Warwickshire in 1639, such thefts led to violence.) Also, the timber was often taken from a forest without asking its owner. In 1603, the Earl of Huntingdon was furious to discover that his estates had been the source of the maypoles used in Leicester.[2]

Protestants grew hostile towards maypoles, first significantly during the Reformation of Edward VI, when a preacher denounced the Cornhill maypole as an idol, causing it to be taken out of storage, sawn up, and burned. Under Mary and Elizabeth I, this opposition to traditional festivities lacked government support, and Elizabeth is recorded as being fond of them. But Puritan pressure to remove maypoles, as a symbol of the mixed-gender dancing, drunkenness, and merry-making on Sundays (see Sabbatarianism), grew nonetheless. From 1570 to 1630, maypoles were banned from Banbury, Bristol, Canterbury, Coventry, Doncaster, Leicester, Lincoln, and Shrewsbury; and there is no historical evidence for their use inside the city limits of London. Of the four Berkshire villages whose accounts still exist, three sold their maypoles between 1588 and 1610. But the trend was not uniformly towards the banning of maypoles. There are many records of their continued use in the 1630s, and Charles I and James I explicitly allowed maypole dancing on Sundays.[2]

That royal support contributed to the outlawing of maypole displays and dancing during the English Interregnum. The Long Parliament's ordinance of 1644 described maypoles as "a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness."[3] The only recorded breach of the Long Parliament's prohibition was in 1655 in Henley-in-Arden, where local officials stopped the erection of maypoles for traditional games. Scholars suspect, but have no way to prove, that the lack of such records indicates official connivance in flouting of the prohibition. However, they are certain that the prohibition turned maypole dancing into a symbol of resistance to the Long Parliament and to the republic that followed it.[2]

May Day celebrations, banned under the Commonwealth, were revived in 1660. The maypole at Castle Bytham, Lincolnshire, was inscribed to commemorate the date when it was later cut in half for use as a ladder

When the Restoration occurred in 1660, common people in London, in particular, put up maypoles "at every crossway," according to Aubrey. The largest was in the Strand, near the current St Mary-le-Strand church. The maypole there was the tallest by far, reaching over a hundred and thirty feet, and it stood until being blown over by a high wind in 1672, when it was moved to Wansted in Essex and served as a mount for a telescope.[2][4]

In the countryside, may dances and maypoles appeared sporadically even during the Interregnum, but the practice was revived substantially and joyously after the Restoration. By the 19th century, the maypole had been subsumed into the symbology of "Merry England". The addition of intertwining ribbons seems to have been influenced by a combination of 19th century theatrical fashion and visionary individuals such as John Ruskin in the 19th century. Pairs of boys and girls (or men and women) stand alternately around the base of the pole, each holding the end of a ribbon. They weave in and around each other, boys going one way and girls going the other and the ribbons are woven together around the pole until the merry-makers meet at the base.

There are also more complex dances for set numbers of (practised) dancers, (the May Queen dancing troups), involving complicated weaves and unweaves, but they are not well known today. However, such dances are performed every Mayday around the permanent Maypole at Offenham, in Worcestershire. Temporary Maypoles are usually erected on village greens and events are often supervised by local Morris dancing groups.

In some regions, a somewhat different Maypole tradition existed: the carrying of highly decorated sticks. The sticks had hoops or cross-sticks or swags attached, covered with flowers, greenery or artificial materials such as crepe paper. Children would take these hand-held poles to school on May Day morning and prizes may be awarded for the most impressive. This tradition is known as garlanding, and was a central feature of Mayday celebrations in central and southern England until the mid-19th century. After that time, it began to be replaced by formally organised school-centred celebrations. It still occurs from place to place but is invariably a reinstatement of a local custom that had lapsed decades earlier.

In 1780, Kilmarnock Council, now in East Ayrshire, paid Robert Fraser 2s. 6d. for dressing a Maypole, one of the last recorded examples of the rural festival of the first of May in Scotland, having been put down by Act of Parliament immediately after the Reformation in 1560.[5]

The tallest maypole in Britain may be found in the village of Welford-on-Avon in Warwickshire though one report[6] of its height (65ft) would mean that the Maypoles in Barwick-in-Elmet, West Yorkshire (86ft) and Nun Monkton, North Yorkshire (78ft) are both bigger.

Lifting of the maypole in Czech Republic

Czech Republic

The maypole (májka or máj) is also still popular in the Czech Republic, in country villages. Villages compete to get taller maypoles than their neighbors, and during the night the youths of a village guard the maypole to keep ruffians from neighboring villages from knocking it over (while at the same time attempting forays into neighboring villages to knock over the maypoles of others).

Greece

In modern Greece people refer to the Maypole as Gaitanaki, and the Maypole dance is also performed. The Maypole, or Mayoksylo (Μαγιόξυλο) in Greek, also has a phallic symbolism. Greek Maypoles are made from the trunks of young cypress trees, and are decorated with yellow daisies and fruits. People traditionally gather wildflowers and make a wreath with them for the occasion.

In Corfu island it is common practice to steal the flowers from gardens for the wreath. The wreath is then hung on the front door and burned in the bonfires of Midsummer, which is also a celebration of St. John the Baptist's birthday (June 25).

In the south, especially in the island of Crete, May is traditionally the month of the dead. Because of this, Cretans avoid marriages in May, which would be considered unlucky.

United States

Multiple maypoles at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania
Children rehearsing around the Maypole, in Alabama, in 1910

While not celebrated among the general public in the United States today, a Maypole Dance nearly identical to that celebrated in the United Kingdom is an important part of many Secondary or High School dances as part of a May Day celebration. Often the Maypole dance will be accompanied by other dances as part of a presentation to the public.

The early colony of Merrymount, founded by Thomas Morton, outraged its Puritan neighbors by setting up a maypole.

Since 1929, graduating seniors at Portales High School in Portales, New Mexico wind the Maypole. This school is the only high school in the country that has performed this event for more than eight consecutive decades.

Early American Colonies

The earliest use of the Maypole in America occurred in 1628, where William Bradford, governor of New Plymouth, wrote of an incident where a number of servants, together with the aid of an agent, broke free from their indentured service to create their own colony, setting up a maypole in the center of the settlement, and behaving in such a way as to receive the scorn and disapproval of the nearby colonies, as well as an official officer of the king, bearing patent for the state of Massachusetts:

"They set up a Maypole, drinking and dancing about it for several days at a time, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, – or furies rather, – to say nothing of worse practices. It was as if they had revived the celebrated feasts of the Roman goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians. Morton, to show his poetry, composed sundry verses and rhymes, some tending to lasciviousness and others to the detraction and scandal of some persons, affixing them to his idle, or idol, Maypole. They changed the name of the place, and instead of calling it Mount Wollaston, they called it Merry Mount, as if the jollity would last forever. But it did not continue long, for, shortly after, Morton was sent back to England, as will appear. In the meantime that worthy gentleman, Mr. John Endicott, arrived from England, bringing over a patent under the broad seal, for the government of Massachusetts. Visiting their neighborhood, he had the Maypole cut down, and reprimanded them for their profaneness, admonishing them to improve their way of living. In consequence, others changed the name of the place again, and called it Mount Dragon!"

Symbolism

The Maypole is often considered a phallic symbol, coinciding with the worship of Germanic phallic figures such as that of Freyr. One clear sexual reference is in John Cleland's controversial novel Fanny Hill:

...and now, disengag'd from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ'd, it must have belong'd to a young giant.

Potential other meanings include symbolism relating to the Yggdrasil, a symbolic axis linking the underworld, the world of the living, the heavens and numerous other realms[7][8][9][10][11]. Also likely related, reverence for sacred trees can be found in surviving accounts of Germanic tribes, for example, Thor's Oak, Adam of Bremen's account of Sacred groves and the Irminsul[12]. The present day tradition of maypoles coincides geographically with the area of influence of the Germanic mythos.

See also

References

  1. ^ Steves, Rick (2008). Rick Steves' Germany and Austria 2008. Avalon Travel. p. 45. ISBN 159880135X. http://books.google.com/books?id=pBlPaWd89J4C&pg=PA45&dq=Maypole+tradition+in+Bavaria&client=firefox-a#v=onepage&q=Maypole%20tradition%20in%20Bavaria&f=false. 
  2. ^ a b c d Ronald Hutton (2001). The Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press. pp. 235236. ISBN 0-19-285448-8. 
  3. ^ http://www.tiersma.com/STATS/LORDSDAY.HTM
  4. ^ Harvey, Paul and Dorothy Eagle, ed (1967). "Maypole in the Strand". The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 528–529. 
  5. ^ Paterson, James (1863–1866). History of the Counties of Ayr and Wigton. Edinburgh: J. Stillie. p. 395. 
  6. ^ http://pmsa.cch.kcl.ac.uk/BM/WAsaWLxx001.htm
  7. ^ 'The London quarterly review, Volumes 113-114', Theodore Foster, 1863, page 117
  8. ^ 'The History of Religions' By Hopkins Edward Washburn, The McMillan Company 1929, page 166
  9. ^ 'European paganism: the realities of cult from antiquity to the Middle Ages' by Ken Dowden, Routledge, 2000, ISBN 0415120349, 9780415120340, page 119
  10. ^ 'Nart sagas from the Caucasus: myths and legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs' by John Colarusso, Princeton University Press, 2002, ISBN 0691026475, 9780691026473, page 102
  11. ^ 'The early history and antiquities of Freemasonry: as connected with ancient Norse guilds, and the oriental and mediæval building fraternities' by George Franklin Fort, Bradley, 1881, page 361
  12. ^ 'A history of pagan Europe' by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0415158044, 9780415158046, page 119

External links


Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010
(Redirected to A Maypole article)

From Wikisource

A Maypole
by Jonathan Swift

Deprived of root, and branch, and rind,
Yet flowers I bear of every kind:
And such is my prolific power,
They bloom in less than half an hour;
Yet standers-by may plainly see
They get no nourishment from me.
My head with giddiness goes round,
And yet I firmly stand my ground;
All over naked I am seen,
And painted like an Indian queen.
No couple-beggar in the land
E'er join'd such numbers hand in hand.
I join'd them fairly with a ring;
Nor can our parson blame the thing.
And though no marriage words are spoke,
They part not till the ring is broke:
Yet hypocrite fanatics cry,
I'm but an idol raised on high;
And once a weaver in our town,
A damn'd Cromwellian, knock'd me down.
I lay a prisoner twenty years,
And then the jovial cavaliers
To their old post restored all three--
I mean the church, the king, and me.

PD-icon.svg This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.







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