Maypole tradition is one of the British traditions which I have come to appreciate. Learning more about the maypole tradition and the story behind this artistic dance has made me recognize the importance of keeping it alive.
The Maypole is more than just a random tall pole. It is a majestic pole beautifully decorated with ribbons and flowers for every celebration of May Day. Children and adults alike practice dance patterns that allow them to weave intricate patterns and then successfully unweave the ribbons all through graceful dancing.
However, did you know that there was a time in history when maypoles were banned? There is more to this tall pole than meets the eye. I can’t wait to share with you all the stories that revolve around this British tradition.
What is a maypole? According to the dictionary, a maypole is “a tall pole, decorated with flowers and ribbons, around which people dance or engage in sports during May Day celebrations.”
May Day is the first day of May, a celebrated day full of festivities. Dancing around the maypole is among the many ways that May Day is celebrated.
Some of the other things that people do to celebrate May Day include:
- Gathering flowers and making a crown out of them
- Making May Day baskets
- Playing May Day games which include maypole dancing
- Gathering around a bonfire
To dance around the maypole, here are a few fundamental steps that traditional dancers perform:
- Maypole dancers weave around one another with the use of ribbons connected to the Maypole.
- The pattern is pre-ordained and rehearsed prior to the performance. The ribbons end up being artistically intertwined.
- Maypole dancers trace their steps back in order to untangle the woven ribbons beautifully.
The typical number of maypole dancers ranges from 12 to 16 in number. It is essential to keep the number even in order to come up with a manageable pattern. This also ensures that every dancer ends up having a partner!
Maypole Dancing history
The maypole dancing history is a difficult one, as there are many versions of how this lovely tradition started. The oldest story dates back 2,000 years ago when it’s been said to have existed in Roman Britain. More details regarding this claim are hard to find.
Another story behind the maypole and maypole dancing is believed to have started in Germany. It then made its way to Great Britain. The roots of maypole dancing point to fertility rites that happened during springtime. Instead of today’s pole, the dancers danced around a living tree.
The common tree used for maypole dancing before was the birch tree. The people would have some of the branches of the tall tree removed, and then garlands and flowers were added as decorations. Ladies and young girls would then dance in circles around the tree to the sound of musical instruments such as bagpipes.
There was a time in history when maypole dancing was banned. During the 17th century, Britain halted maypole celebrations mainly due to the dancing and drinking involved with it.
There is another story which recounts the beginning of maypole dancing in a different light. It was said that in the 18th century, the maypole dance was a famous expression of art in Italy and France. The performances made their way to theatres in London, and the appreciation for maypole dancing grew from then on.
A training school took interest in maypole dancing so much that they added it to their curriculum as part of the physical education of ladies during that time. In the 1950s, maypole dancing gained much popularity specifically in elementary schools in England.
The music used in maypole dancing generally lies within the genres of English folk music and Morris tunes. There can be jigs, marches, reels and waltzes.
Here are some of the tunes used for maypole dances:
What do maypole dancers wear?
Usually, maypole dancers wear all white. Coloured sashes adorn their outfits and ribbons are tied to their hair. Traditionally, maypole dancers were young girls but truthfully speaking, anyone can dance around the maypole.
Sometimes, maypole dancers wear specially-designed costumes that speak of history. It all depends on the location where the maypole dancing is performed.
There are also stories of maypole dancers wearing simple nightgowns embellished with plastic flowers and sashes. Others choose various colours aside from white; the maypole dancers agree on making the vibe as colourful as possible.
There really is no Maypole Day. What we have is May Day, which in some parts of the UK is called Early May Bank Holiday, May Day Bank Holiday or Spring Bank Holiday. May Day happens on the 1st of May. It generally celebrates the peak of springtime and the coming of summertime. This is where maypole dancing is highlighted the most.
Is May Day and Beltane the same? Both happen on the 1st of May, and many regard Beltane as the reason why we have May Day today. The main difference between May Day and Beltane is that Beltane clearly has pagan roots, and it has something to do with fertility.
May Day, on the other hand, has unclear foundations. While some accept Beltane and May Day to be directly connected with one another, some people would say otherwise.
What does a maypole symbolize?
A maypole signifies a tree, one that stands tall and straight and looks healthy. Before, a real tree (traditionally a tall birch tree) was used when performing the maypole dance. However, as the need for a more convenient way to do the traditional dance became evident, the tree was substituted with a pole.
Why was the maypole tradition banned?
Oliver Cromwell, known as the Lord Protector of England, and the Puritans found the drinking and dancing that was associated with maypole dancing to be unacceptable. Some say it’s because of this that the Parliament banned the maypole festival in 1644.
Another reason that is given as a response to the banning of maypole dancing is its linkage to Pagan rites. The Museum of Oxford explains it with these statements:
“Another springtime tradition, maypole dancing, also faced opposition. Said to have its origins in tree worship when ancient Celts would select a tree, strip its branches, and decorate it with flower garlands, the maypole came to represent this sacred tree and its attendant spirits which were thought to bring good luck.”
Source: Museum of Oxford
Vicar Thomas Bracebridge spearheaded an attack which led to the taking down of all the maypoles erected within his district. Whitsun ales, may game and morris dances were also restrained.
People had conflicting views regarding the banning of the maypole. Some think that the dancing and every feature of this tradition is done in harmless fun. Others find the behaviour associated with maypole dancing to be sinful and ungodly.
Maypole dancing was generally inexistent starting in 1645.
The celebration later came back when Charles II regained power in 1660. People began having fun around the maypole again, and Charles II even erected a maypole in London’s Strand to show his support for this tradition.
What is the meaning of wrapping the maypole?
There lies a lot of meaning to the maypole itself, including the wrapping of the Maypole. Here are some ideas that people have regarding the wrapping of the maypole:
- Wrapping and unwrapping of the ribbons of the maypole are said to symbolize the lengthening of days as summertime is about to start.
- It can also mean something more complex like the interaction of the community and how people should be in unison with each other. The pole itself acts as the common axis on which everyone is rooted onto.
Is maypole dancing Pagan?
Some people agree that maypole dancing has Pagan roots while some disagree. Maypole dancing has similar characteristics to how Beltane, a Celtic holiday, is celebrated.
List of places where Maypole Tradition is still celebrated:
1. Offenham in Worcestershire
There is a permanent maypole in Offenham that measures 64 feet. This is one of the six permanent maypoles in England. Among the six, the maypole in Offenham is the tallest.
The construction of the maypole may have happened during the time that the ban on maypole dancing was lifted. The existing maypole has already seen repairs and refurbishes over the years.
Today, you see the national colours of red, white and blue on the maypole in Offenham. There is also a weather vane stationed on top of the pole. When it’s May Day, people in Offenham participate in traditions such as maypole dancing, morris dancing and the crowning of the Queen of the May.
I lived in Worcestershire for a while and I wrote another article that discusses the Best Things To Do In Worcestershire, UK: A Local’s Guide.
2. Wheatley in Oxfordshire
May Day is a celebration held yearly in Wheatley. It has been a springtime tradition for the people to hold parades and participate in maypole and morris dancing. Another fun activity that they do is the crowning of the Queen of May.
Prior to the celebration, maypoles are erected in different villages in Wheatley. These are then decorated with colourful ribbons and various flowers. As preparation, schoolchildren practice dancing around the maypole to classic tunes.
One of the tallest surviving permanent poles in England is located at Welford-on-Avon. The pole, which is officially regarded as a Grade II historical monument, is made from aluminium and has a weather vane in the form of a fox.
Before, the maypole at Welford was made from wood. Lightning struck the original structure, so they had to rebuild it with a sturdier material.
On May Day, children from Welford-on-Avon gather around the maypole as a tradition. They perform traditional maypole dances in an effort to preserve this age-old festival.
4. Dunchurch, Warwickshire
Dunchurch has a permanent maypole where the ceremonial folk dance is performed. During May Day, the pole dons a very elaborate flower arrangement and colourful strips of ribbon.
Aside from the maypole dance, one highlight of the festivity is the crowning of the May Queen.
5. Barwick in Yorkshire
The maypole tradition in Barwick happens every three years (not annually.) The feast starts way before the date, as the people take down the pole on Easter Monday so that they can do some refurbishings. When Spring Bank Holiday comes, the pole is placed back and completed with decorations.
As the celebration unfolds, you’ll see various floats and morris dancers providing entertainment to the crowd. As the pole is erected, there is of course maypole dancing, along with the awarding of the Maypole Queen.
As the celebrations progressed, one unique event sets Barwick apart from the rest. A challenger is set to try climbing up the maypole and then spinning the weather vane on top.
The latest maypole celebration happened this year, 2022, so the next one is bound to happen in 2025.
6. Dunster and Minehead in Somerset
Maypole dancing has been an annual tradition in Somerset. School children dance around the area’s tallest maypole, and the crowds can watch for free.
There is also a parade to showcase the costumes worn by the maypole dancers. Local bands provide the music for the whole event.
7. Padstow in Cornwall
May Day in Padstow is also known as “Obby ‘Oss.” The celebration starts on the eve of May Day when there will be lots of singing around town. The Maypole is then decorated with greenery and flowers.
On the day itself, children parade with their “Obby ‘Osses.” There is also the “Oss” who is basically a local donning a colourful horse mask and dressed in flowing robes.
May Day is a springtime tradition in Oxford. On the morning of the celebration, a Latin hymn of thanksgiving is sung from the Magdalen College Tower. Once the bells ring, Morris dancing follows.
9. Castleton, Derbyshire
Traditional maypole dancing is one of the highlights of the Garland Day celebrations at Castleton. Similar to “Oak Apple Day,” this festivity celebrates the restoration of the monarchy that happened in 1660.
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