The MaypoleThe decorated Maypole is one of the most familiar images of the May Day celebrations. The tradition is believed to be of Germanic origin however it has since spread much further. Here in Britain the Maypole and associated dancing have become associated with Morris Men.
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History & TraditionsThe Maypole is probably a fertility symbol associated with the ancient pagan festival of Beltane. The pole itself has clear phallic overtones whilst its traditional construction of wood links back to the renewal of the Earth. Beltane was very much a fertility festival associated with the end of winter and the rebirth of the land. A famous Maypole scene appears in the 1973 film The Wicker Man.
The connection of the Maypole with trees is also reminiscent of other traditions such as the Norse world tree Yggdrasil or the Irish tree of life the Bile Pole. Singing and dancing around the Maypole was a celebration of nature, new life and hope.
In the Germanic countries Maypoles are often decorated to represent the main professions of the village. If trade and commerce are seen as the "lifeblood" of society then this clearly fits with ancient symbolism. In some areas there are traditions of villages staging mock thefts of or battles for each other's Maypoles.
Sometimes young men will plant a miniature Maypole outside the house of a woman whose affections they wish to attract. The Freudian symbolism needs no explanation.
Morris DancingIn the UK the standard image of a Maypole is of a pole decorated by long ribbons around which dance the Morris Men.
The ribbon bedecked Maypole is not part of the pagan tradition. It was invented in the 19th century by one John Ruskin and was part of a more "civilised" revival of the May Day customs. The dancing round the maypole often reflects the fertility rites of the ancient custom with men dancing one way and women the other until they meet up in the middle.
More advanced dances are sometimes enacted by Morris Dancers. These dances involve detailed, intricate "weaves" and "unweaves" as the ribbons are linked together then unlinked again. These complex dances require great skill and practice - one mistake and the whole thing becomes a mess.