Come lasses and lads, get leave
of your dads,
And away to the Maypole hie,
For every he has got him a she,
And the fiddler's standing by.
(Come Lasses & Lads - Anon)
I f May Day makes you think of workers'
demonstrations or the Soviet Army parading its missiles, think again. It is one of
our traditional Pagan holidays, and the
only one not taken over by the Christian
Church. Only recently was it given the status of a
and ever since it's been under threat from those unaware of its non-political traditions.
May Day, the first day of May, was a time
when people celebrated the arrival
of spring. Winter was dying and new
crops were beginning to show above the
warming soil. The people had survived
another winter and could look forward to
the fruits of the earth. Villagers would
cut branches and decorate houses with
the fresh green growth, the symbol of the
earth's fertility. A Queen of the May
might be chosen to oversee festivities.
The spirit of the day is represented by
'Jack-in-the-Green', a man covered in
leaves, or hidden in a wooden basket woven
with branches. He is The Green Man',
being the embodiment of nature and fertility, and thus of life, and is an enduring
image. He is remembered even now - in
countless pub names.
The ending of winter allowed villagers
to enjoy the open air, and on the village
green celebratory dancing took place. A
birch pole was erected and dancing took
place around it.
In towns, the May Pole was a permanent
feature. In London's Leadenhall Street
there was a May Pole so tall that the
nearby church was called the Church of St
The origin of the May Pole is lost in
time. It would appear to be a fertility
symbol, or perhaps a reference to the tree
worship central to English life (consider
the yew tree planted by every church, the
importance of mistletoe, the holy oak,
the holly and the ivy).
Correspondence in the Guardian newspaper
proposed the May Pole as being an early
form of stored program. The various
patterns made by the coloured ribbons
being a record of the dancers' movements.
In the 1650s, during Puritan rule, May
Poles were cut down; the effects of the
Puritan anti-pleasure edicts linger still
today. But dancing around the pole never
completely died out and there was a revival in Victorian times, with an increasing interest in folklore.
Samual Pepys records in his diary for
1661 that he
'... saw dancing in the Strand,
many milkmaids with their garlands on
their pails dancing with a fiddler before
them'. I remember dancing around the
May Pole annually at school in the 1950's
although its history was never explained
to me. I was interested to recently see a similar pole in
Sweden, wrapped in ribbons, with a garland of evergreens,
erected in public places in summer.
May Day is an important time in the
Pagan calendar. Its eve is known as
Walpurgis night in Germanic countries.
As Beltane it was the Gaelic fire festival,
and in classical times it was the festival of
Hades, god of the Underworld.
In western Perthshire, the village of
Callander celebrated Beltane with a bonfire
and a large cake known as the Beltane
Cake. The cake was divided in pieces,
with one portion blackened with charcoal. The pieces of the cake were drawn
blindfolded from a bonnet and the person
who picked the blackened piece was chosen to represent the sacrifice to Belinus,
the Lord of Beltane. That person had to
leap thrice through the bonfire flames, an
echo, surely, of Pagan sacrifices.
May Day is an ancient traditional holiday. It is our loss that we do not celebrate
coming summer with the intensity of our
forebears. But we do not live in such
harmony with the seasons. However May
Day is a holiday we should keep, for the
echoes of the past still vibrate, and it is
not too late to dance around the May
I'll be celebrating May Day with a glass of fresh crisp English wine - Phoenix from Three Choir Vineyards, and accompanying dinner with this - my new house wine, the very appropriately named Bordeaux Clos de May
If you have been, thanks for reading.
© Copyright Peter May 2002.