This afternoon we went along to Matthew’s school May Festival, which centred around maypole dancing. There was also face painting, flower decorated headdresses and butterfly streamers to make as well as hoola hoops and juggling to try. The plant swap stall proved popular and we came away with courgette and cauliflower plants for our vegetable garden and cerinthe and nasturtiums for the flower border. Everyone bought something for lunch to share and the feast was laid out on long trestle tables in the marque.
The May Festival Band was made up of parents and teachers who turned up on the day and, with no rehearsal, played an afternoon’s worth of impromptu folk and dance music. There was Robin on cajon, Remus with his guitar, Selina, Clare, Nada and Laurie playing violins and David with flute, recorder and penny whistle. Class 2 started off the maypole dancing and then the adults joined in, making a spiders web and then weaving around the maypole.
The symbolism of the maypole has been continuously debated by folklorists for centuries. Primarily found within the nations of Germanic Europe and the neighbouring areas which they have influenced, they are thought to be a continuation of a Germanic pagan tradition. One theory holds that they were a remnant of their reverence for sacred trees. Non-Germanic people have often viewed them as being a fertility symbol.
In many places the conventional tree for a maypole was a hawthorn, although oak, birch and elm were also traditional in some locations. Sometimes the maypoles were painted, often with spiralling stripes of bright colours, and some of them, particularly in towns, were elaborately decorated.
The earliest recorded evidence for maypoles in Great Britain comes from a Welsh poem written in the mid-14th century. By the period 1350-1400 the custom was well established across southern Britain, in town and country and in both Welsh-speaking and English-speaking areas. The practice had become increasingly popular throughout the ensuing centuries, with the maypoles becoming “communal symbols” that brought the local community together – in some cases, poorer parishes would join up with neighbouring ones in order to obtain and erect one. The rise of Protestantism in the 16th century led to increasing disapproval of maypoles and other May Day practices, and under the Reformation many maypoles were destroyed. The practice was revived substantially and joyously after the Restoration.
Originally, the tradition was to decorate a pole with garlands of flowers and leaves. These were known as ribbon-less maypoles and dancers simply circled the maypole in time with the music which was often provided by pipe and tabor, fiddle and whatever other instruments could be found. Later, ribbons were attached to the top of the maypole and dancers wound in different directions around the maypole holding a ribbon each to create a complex pattern of colours. After the ribbons have been wound onto the pole or perhaps plaited on themselves, the practice was to reverse the path of the dance to unwind the ribbons again.
Even though the original meaning of the maypole may have been lost over time, there are still many people happy to keep up the tradition, even if it is, like today, only to keep warm on a chilly afternoon!