Every spring on village greens up and down Britain a pole is set up and children dance around it, often holding ribbons which are attached to the top of the pole.
The modern form of maypole dancing is very largely the work of the Victorian writer John Ruskin whose theories and examples were followed throughout the country. But Ruskin was drawing on a much older and more robust tradition.
The oldest written references to maypoles come in the 14th century, but since these make it clear they are referring to a generations-old custom it is clear that maypoles were in use much earlier. Indeed, it is generally assumed that the maypole is a pagan symbol which dates back to the days of the English who came to Britain from Germany to destroy the remnants of Roman civilisation and set up their own culture. The theory is given some strength by the fact that similar customs continue in some areas of Germany to this day.
If the maypole did form part of the spring fertility rites, this would explain much about its use and its form. As with other pagan festivals, the spring festival to the great god Frey - whose name survives in the name of the day of the week, Friday - managed to be incorporated into the Christian festivals as the new religion spread. In this case, however, the old festival proved to be too robust to be completely taken over by Easter, the Christian spring festival. Instead the May Day festival survived as very much its own event.
On the first day of May, before dawn, people would get up and make their way into the fields and woods to gather flowers, green branches and, in some areas, hawthorn. These were carried back home to decorate the outside of the houses and to be worn in the hair. Dancing and festivities followed.
Although the details varied from place to place, some common themes occur. The first is the tradition of the Green Man, celebrated in numerous pub names, who wore a suit of green and was covered in green branches and leaves. The Green Man was variously thought to represent the wild wood, the fresh shoots of spring plants or the strength of nature, though he may have been a half forgotten shadow of the representation of Frey himself.
Another common feature in May Day events was the creation of the Queen of May. This young lady was chosen each year, usually as the most eligible spinster or most beautiful young woman in the village. She was crowned with flowers or greenery and treated like nobility for the day.
But most important in many areas was the maypole. Some of these poles could be truly enormous. The maypole set up in Leadenhall Street in the City of London was famously tall and thin. In fact it as so tall that it stood some 10 feet taller than the church steeple itself. The pole was raised early on May Day morning to act as the centre feature of the dancing, drinking and merrymaking of the day. For the rest of the year it was kept suspended on hooks on the front walls of the houses of Leadenhall Street. So famous did the maypole become that the church outside which it was set became known as St Andrew’s Undershaft. King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon are known to have taken part in the celebrations on at least one occasion.
As with many survivals of pagan days, the maypole was abolished by the Puritans when they came to power following the Civil War of the 1640s. The great Leadenhall Street pole was smashed and never replaced. When the monarchy was restored in 1660 the maypole returned, but mainly in rural villages and county towns. The great cities seem to have abandoned the May Day events as the people within them grew increasingly separated form the countryside and its traditions.
By the mid-19th century the maypole dancing was in serious decline. The tightly knit village communities which had supported it for so long were fading under the impact of railways, improved roads and the growth of industrialisation. Many Victorians, seeing the squalor of the big cities and the moral decline of the working classes looked to tradition and Christianity to save society. The writer John Ruskin was among those who looked to the old customs which had held rural village societies together as something desirable to be continued in the the emerging age. Among the clearly visible and easy to stage events he attempted to revitalise was the maypole dancing.
Under Ruskin’s lead the maypole once again became the central focus for communities on May Day. However instead of the drunken revelry of the old days, there was a new Christian and family focus. Mostly the new maypoles were danced around by children from the local Church schools. These children were trained to carry out a sequence of complicated steps which wove the ribbons downwards from the top of the maypole into fantastic shapes and designs.
It is this new, sober, Christian maypole which is seen on so many village greens in our springtimes. Of course, these days it rarely makes an appearance on May Day itself. Instead, the pole is erected on the day of the local village fete, usually held on a Saturday some time in the month so that the local residents with Monday-Friday jobs can attend.
This is an extract from "Everything You Need to Know about the British" by Rupert Matthews.