Some background and some dances.
Info provided by Paul Kerlee but edited (messed up) by John L.
The maypole, in one form or another throughout Europe, is an ancient fertility symbol. The Maypole dance survives from those ancient times, and is still celebrated.
Most May Day customs originated in pre-Christian agricultural rites. May Day festivals go back at least to the time of Flora, the early Roman goddess of flowers and spring. Every vear early in May the children of Rome came dancing to Flora's temple, wearing wreaths of flowers in their hair and bringing garlands and bouquets for the goddess. The fifth month of the Julian and Gregorian year is called afte the goddess Maia. whose name meant "increase." Her blessings were sought through dances and sacrifices.
Europeans, long ago, worshipped among the trees and they developed similar customs to honor spring. Like the Roman festival, those of Northern Europe were originally rituals to ensure fertility for crops, animals and of course, people. In England young people would go off into the forests on May Day Eve for "recreation", much to the chagrin of Phillip Stubbes (see below). At dawn young maids would gather the dew and anoint their faces. The young men would cut down a tree and bring it into the village laden with flowers and stripped of all but its topmost branches. Bright streamers, an Italian tradtion adopted later, and sprays of flowers were attached at the very top. Young men and women danced round the pole weaving the streamers into a lovely pattern down its full length.
In Tudor England May Day was a great public holiday. All classes of people were up with the dawn and went a-maying. In nearby groves and forests they cut flowering branches and picked all the blossoms they could find, bringing the treasures back to village and town in triumph. In the center of the procession was the Maypole, tall and straight. This was decorated and set up, usually just for the day; in London and the larger towns the poles were permanent. Nearly every household set a "may-bush" of hawthorn at the doorway and flowering branches decked the streets. Magic things happened on May Day-- anyone who bathed in May morning dew would become beautiful, unsalted butter churned in May was stored for its medicinal properties, and the first person you saw on May morning would be your own true love.
Every village appointed a May King or a May Queen to preside over the spring festivities. These make-believe sovereigns wore crowns of flowers or cloaks of green leaves. In south-east Ireland the prettiest girl was chosen May Queen and she presided over gatherings of young people at dances and games for the entire year. or until she married. Some regions called her the May Bride. and she wore wedding finery crowned with flowers. Other societies appointed both a King and Queen of May who were united in a mock wedding to insure the fruitfulness of the earth.
The puritanical writer Phillip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses, first published at London in 1583, has described with manifest disgust how they used to bring in the May-pole in the days of good Queen Bess. His description affords us a vivid glimpse of merry England in the olden time:
"Against May, Whitsonday, or other time, all the yung men and
men and wivcs, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hils, and
where they spend all the night in plcsant pastimes; and in the morning
return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their
withall. And no mervaile, for there is a great Lord present amongst
as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sportes, namely,
prince of hel. But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their
which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twentie
fortie yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flouers
on the tip of his hornes, and these oxen drawe home this May-polc (this
ydol, rather), which is covered all over with floures and hearbs, bound
about with strings, from the top to the bottome, and sometime painted
variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children
it with great devotion. And thus beeing reared up, with handkercheefs
flags hovering on the top, they straw the ground rounde about, binde
boughes about it, set up sommer haules, bowers, and arbors hard by it.
then fall they to daunce about it, like as the heathen people did at
dedication of the Idols, whereof
this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported (and that viva voce) by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of fortie, threescore, or a hundred maides going to the wood over night, there have scaresly the third part of them returned home againe undefiled." (from THE GOLDEN BOUGH by Sir James George Frazer)
Music and Books
(When performed live we use music that Leah would know.)
When using recordings we have used dances was from HOLD THE MUSTARD,
available from CDSS. Tunes used were:
circling - “Jack’s Health”
barberpole - “K. & E.”
spider’s web - “Duke of Kent’s Waltz”
weaving - “Round About Our Coal Fire”
Maypole books available from CDSS are
Maypole Dancing by Sandy Mason 1988
A Festival of the English May by Doleta Chapru 1977
Maypole Dances by W. Shaw 1954
Making A Pole
Paul's notes from the CTOSA workshop, March 21, 1999
A convenient way of creating a portable maypole is to use a
volley-ball standard which is open at the top. A top can be created by
someone with woodworking
skill. It should be about 18“ in diameter with an even number of small
drilled through near the outside edge. In the center should be attached
short 1 1/4 inch pipe solidly in a fitting. This will slide into the
of the standard. and be free to rotate. Cardboard rug cores from a
store serve to cover the standard pole, making it look more like a
pole, and they make the weaving figures look much bigger and better. In
figures you may wish to have a non-rotating top. A bolt through the two
will accomplish this. Ribbons of alternating colors show off patterns
best. Use strong cloth ribbons about 18 feet long. The rule of thumb is
the streamers should be twice the length of the pole or a little more.
Some Maypole Dances
P. Kerlee, 3/21/99
Dancers next to their partners form a large circle, 1’s on the left. Dancers can be referred to by numbers or colors. English country dance tunes should be used for the figures.
1. Circling. - Dancers move freely clockwise around the pole, turning and skipping at will, but always maintaining their order. At a certain point in the music dancers reverse direction if you have a non-rotating top.
2. Barberpole - 1’s move toward the center and stand facing out while 2’s circle once around clockwise to starting place. Then 2’s move in and stand facing out while 1’s circle counterclockwise. This pattern is repeated until it becomes awkward to proceed. Dancers then reverse the pattern until they can open out again in one circle.
3. Spider’s Web, or Gypsy Tent - (Use waltz music) Partners face and dance forward and back twice (4 measures), letting the ribbons touch as they approach. Then partners dance a right shoulder back-to-back (do-si-do) 1 and 1/2 times and end facing a new partner. This pattern will continue until a beautiful web shape is formed. (The number of turns will depend on the number of dancers, height of the pole, and length of the streamers.) Dancers unwind by turning around and continuing the pattern using a left shoulder back-to-back until they are home. Often dancers will continue that new direction to create another web before ending the dance.
4. Jacob’s Ladder - 1’s move in several steps and stand facing out, holding ribbons taut. 2’s, holding ribbons loosely, circle once around each other on the insice (pole side). Each goes around outside of his/her partner and circles once around on the outside. Each then goes back outside his/her partner to circle once again on the inside. This process is repeated a few times to form the “ladder” (a little like a shoelace). It is important that the 2’s keep their ribbons loose enough so the “sides” of the ladder are not pulled together. Then all march clockwise around the pole, if it is a rotating pole, to display the ladders. Then the process is reversed as the ladders are unwound. Music must be chosen carefully for this so that it changes to a processional quality for the parade around, and back to the original for the unwinding.
5. Weaving or Single Plait - Partners face and dance a grand right and left (no hands), taking care to keep a proper distance from the person in front of them going the same way. The weaving pattern descends the pole for a ways and is left there. A fast waltz works for this, with 3 steps to pass, and 3 steps in place each time.