Dancing the maypole has been a tradition in Europe for many centuries. Perhaps it originated from the Roman ritual of celebrating the beginning of Spring and “wearing of the green.” During this time, flowers of the season used with garlands of green were used to adorn the pagan festival that included dancing, drinking and much merry making.
The tradition of Spring festivals continued for centuries and took on many different forms. During the Middle Ages, the custom of recognizing the onset of Spring played an important part of village life in England. Men from the village cut down a young tree, usually a birch because of their tall, straight stature. The tree would be stripped of all limbs, placed in a hole on the village green, and painted green and white. Then young couples from the village decorated the pole using spring flowers and the Hawthorn bush (Crataegus oxacantha), which was believed to hold mystical powers. On May Day, the couples came together to kiss and dance around the maypole, which they believed to be a fertility symbol. After the dance, some couples went into the surrounding woods where a ‘minister’ performed a ‘marriage.’ The offspring of such a union were called Merry-begats and were not formally recognized by their natural fathers, but were instead considered gifts from God.
It was not until the early 1800s that the maypole as we know it today came into existence. The pole was still painted green and white, but now ribbons or streamers were anchored atop the pole. Special attention was given to the length of the ribbons used in the ceremony to ensure the dancers had enough to weave the intricate patterns created as the dancers performed the ritual dance. Music played as the gentlemen dropped to one knee as their partners skipped past, swooping in, under and around other dancers. As s result of the dance movements, the ribbons made a colorful, plaited design on the maypole. At the end of the celebrations a May Queen was appointed.
Perhaps the first evidence the tradition of dancing the may pole in America can be seen in May of 1622. William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony (1620-1647) writes that a settler called Thomas Morton erected a may pole “…they also set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days together, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together, (like so many fairies, or furies rather,) and worse practises.” Morton later returned to England and Mr. John Indecott, arrived who “…caused that Maypole to be cut downe, and rebuked them for their profannes, and admonished them…”
Seen in this photograph circa 1908, ladies only perform the ceremonial dance in their beautiful white or off white dresses. The photograph was kindly supplied by the Colorado College, Special Collections Dept.