Maypole Dances and History for May Day
Maypole in the United Kingdom
A Celebration of Communism
I learned about the Maypoles and maypole dances in Russian class during the spring of the 7th grade. Class was taught by a native Ukrainian woman and a native Northern Russian man and both were interesting.
From our teachers, we students received both the rural and urban Soviet perspectives on the holiday of May Day. The rural versions included longer periods of dancing with the maypole and the giving of May baskets filled with of flowers, sweet cakes, and small gifts. The urban version was short and simple: a few dances and songs.
These lessons occurred during part the Cold War years that spanned approximately 1945 - 1991, when many Americans were unhappy with Russia.
American Army General George Patton began complaining about the Soviet threat around 1943, starting a media conflict after he told everyone who would listen about his opinion. I was fortunate to have teachers who had heard him first hand and I heard that he expressed himself too loudly for political comfort in the USA and the USSR. By 2018, many people had decided that he was right after all.
American Law and Loyalty Day
In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as both Law Day and Loyalty Day. He did this to counteract the USSR and socialist countries that celebrated non-democratic governments with May Day.
In 1955, the Catholic church via Pope Pius XII dedicated the day to St. Joseph the Worker (the human father of Jesus Christ), to bring religious significance to May Day.
Socialism in Chicago, 1886
May Day, May 1, became the Socialist holiday known as International Workers' Day in commemoration of the May 4, 1886 Haymarket killings in Chicago, Illinois.
The workers' day is now celebrated around the world in dozens of countries, including much of Central and South America, Canada, and USA as well as overseas nations.
Tired of working long hours in 1886, the workers of Chicago pretested by striking for an 8-hour work day. As the result of a worker-thrown bomb, police officers shot and killed four of the protesters. This created an uproar of sentiment that demanded recognition of those dead workers with a special day.
Various events around the world added to the interest of May 1st as a worker's day for recognition, but May 1 became a much celebrated day for different reasons globally.
German communities often celebrate May Day as the day St. Walpurga brought Christianity to the land, but some groups celebrate the night of April 30 - May 1 as a night of witches' meetings. In either case, maypoles are often adorned with evergreen trees over a green wreath at the top, to honor spring and new life.
The Catholic church in many places around the world offers recognition to the Virgin Mary on May 1, without the maypole.
The maypole seems to be used most often in Germany and nearby, mostly European, countries and by socialist and communist nations.
In German communities, it is also a tradition that a young man interested in a young woman has a maypole delivered to her front lawn in the middle of the night and set up for May Day dancing.
The fourth grade children ages 9 and 10 in the video below are quite good at making patterns in the woven ribbons and unwinding them again!
Maypoles Have Diverse Meanings
The first meaning I learned of the maypole was the celebration of Communism on the Soviet holiday May Day, which had been a long standing holiday in folk communities in Australia, England, Germany (with an evergreen tree at the top), Sweden, and other European nations.
Before Soviet Communism, a happy pagan celebration of life and nature in Spring or Summer used the maypole and still uses it in many communities.
The pagan maypole celebration is likely more recognized by US residents than is the Soviet version. We have seen the "pole dancing" to celebrate nature in cartoons since before the time of Walt Disney and Walter Lance. The depictions were all positive, as I remember. Some elementary schools in the US have students build and use a smaller version of a maypole in the spring, as a history lesson.
Girls wearing ribbons and flowers in their hair dance a traditional dance, while winding long ribbons around a tall pole in a type of braid, until the ribbons are taken up entirely. Then a party can occur. One version of the dance looks much like the old children's dance done to the song "In and Out the Window." Many American groups dance the maypole dance without any recognition of pagan or Christian belief, but they seem to acknowledge the renewal of nature in Spring.
Pagan traditions of the maypole seem to date back centuries to a number of ancient groups, but the groups all seem to include a reverence for nature and the changing seasons of the year and especially springtime. Some authorities think that the maypole is a symbolic phallus and well, emphasizing reproduction in springtime.
Traditional Soviet Hat Waving
The worst thing you could call someone in Russian during the 1960s and 1970s was "khrush", the first part of former Premier Nikita Khrushchev's surname. The syllable meant "potato bug." There was also a running joke during these years that when the USSR reported that a government official had dropped out of sight "suffering a cold" it meant that he had been assassinated by his own government.
Military Parades and Maypoles
On May Day in Moscow, we know that the custom from the beginning of the USSR was to parade all the military might of the Soviets through Red Square for the workers and the elite to view - there were but two classes. The people watched tanks, cannons, missiles, and related armaments drive through the street, along with soldiers and Soviet youth groups. Women and girls in traditional clothing danced around maypoles at the end of the show.
Faith-based activities were outlawed in the October Revolution of 1917, so a non-religious maypole was brought out, stripped of pagan religion as well, and used to promote the Glorious Motherland or Fatherland of the workers for International Workers' Day.
Soviet girls and women in traditional skirts, embroidered blouses, and beribboned hair would dance around the pole while holding ribbons attached to the top end of it. They would move around the pole, in and out of other dancers' ribbons, to form a braid around the pole. When the ribbons were used up in this way, the dance ended. There was not much else done in the way of public celebration.
In The United Kingdom
The maypole has been popular in the United Kingdom and some Celtic traditions may be attached to it. Modern UK May Days now often have fire dancers and other traditions attached to them.
The Cornwall Maypole in Padstow Town
The maypole used in Padstow, Cornwall is huge and elaborate and the May Day holiday entails much more than it does in some other communities.
Cornwall's celebrations are part of the May Day holiday's 'Obby 'Oss Festival, in which two teams, the red and the blue or the Old and the Blue Ribbon, compete in a contest of two men dressed as stylized hobby horses with horse masks and black capes added. This festival is almost like a dispute between political parties, without the yelling and cursing.
The townspeople gather at midnight on May Day to sing and spend the night decorating their hometown in evergreen boughs and flowers. Besides Padstow, at least three or four other nearby towns celebrate these traditions.
In the morning, the horse contest includes catching women under the hobby horses' black capes and each man-horse leading a good parade of followers, many of whom wear blue or red neckerchiefs.
Another traditional song is sung during the day's events and a party is held. Some historians think that the hobby horse traditions are Celtic in origin, but others think the townspeople just came up with something different for May Day around 1800. It's fun, regardless of the origin.
Cornwall May Day and 'Obby 'Oss
The hobby horse below in Chipping Campden is very colorful. The Cornwall variety uses a smaller headpiece or mask and a more voluminous black cape. Really, in Cornwall, the cape looks like a large trash bag.
The annual maypole can be many things, including at least these:
- Symbol of a fun song and dance,
- Symbol of spring
- Symbol for fertility and reproduction
- Symbol of Communism and Socialism
- Symbol of law and loyalty,
- Symbol of St. Joseph, human father of Christ, and of the Virgin Mary
© 2015 Patty Inglish MS