How’s that Maypole Thing Work?

Merry May! I thought I’d write a post about Maypoles because many people want to do Maypole rituals for May Day but don’t know the details. So here goes…

First, you’re going to need a pole at least 12′ long and 5″ in diameter. These dimensions are important: you need to embed at least 18″ of the pole in the ground in order for it to be stable during the Maypole dance, and a pole of any narrower diameter will take FOREVER for the ribbons to be wrapped on the pole. Think about it: if every turn around the pole is only taking up a few inches of ribbon, you’ll be going around that pole for a long, long time before you’ve used up the long ribbons you’re dancing with.

Next, you need a location. Level, preferably grass or comfortably springy soil, and available for digging a hole. The area you need depends on the number of dancers you hope to accommodate, but it should be at least 30′ across to accommodate dancers, musicians and those watching but not dancing.

There are multiple ways to do the next part, but I make a flower crown for the Maypole out of baling wire. This crown goes over the top of the pole and held firmly in place there, and is decorated with flowers (florists’ wire is helpful for affixing the flowers to the wire structure). This is often a group activity before the Maypole dance. The ribbons—one for each dancer, about 15′-20′ long—are tied onto the flower crown at the hub (next to the pole). See the photograph above, which is of our 2015 Maypole.

Affix the flower crown to the pole and then dig an 18″-2′ deep hole to receive the pole. Carefully tilt up the pole and put the opposite end from the flower crown in the ground, packing dirt all around it until it is firmly seated.

Now you should have your Maypole! With ribbons dangling down from the flower crown, and ready to be danced and wrapped up.

The Maypole dance is a very simple one: dancers are designated into two groups, each group established by alternating every other dancer standing in the circle around the pole (“A, B, A, B” etc.). The “A”s go clockwise around the pole; the “B”s go counterclockwise, so dancers start out in pairs facing one another, holding their ribbons. As they begin to go around the pole, when dancers pass each other, they raise and lower the hand holding the ribbon rhythmically to guide the ribbon over and then under the dancers they encounter, creating an “over…under…over…under” pattern that weaves the ribbons on the pole. As you dance, make eye contact with the dancers coming towards you, and smile!

Here is a YouTube video that illustrates the dance. Skip to 6:40.

There is quite a bit of traditional British music that is associated with dancing the Maypole. Live musicians are best, but barring that, I quite like the music of the New England ensemble Bare Necessities, from their album Take a Dance.

It is inevitable that while dancing the Maypole, there will be mistakes, and that is a part of the charm. This is a fun and joyous ritual activity, not an exercise in precision.

When the ribbons are mostly woven on the pole and there are only short ends left, blow a whistle to signal that everyone should now go clockwise and simply race around the pole with their ribbons, no longer going over and under. This will wind the ends of the ribbons about the pole and complete the Maypole dance.

All of the elements of the Maypole ritual can be augmented with additional ritual components. I have attended Maypole rituals where the men carried in the pole and anointed it with oil, for example, and women constructed the flower crown and dug the hole. Some may consider this exclusionary of genderfluid and nonbinary folks, however, so be sure you’re thinking through your choices in light of the group you will be working with.

In any event, experiment and make the Maypole ritual your own! While this is a tradition that goes back at least to the Middle Ages in Germanic and Scandinavian countries, it is a living tradition and you should feel free to put your own stamp on it.

A merry, merry May to all of you!

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3 thoughts on “How’s that Maypole Thing Work?

  1. You make it sound simple. It should be simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. Carrying a 12-foot log and erecting it for the hole is heavy lifting, so there needs to be some muscle available. Much merriment can be added at this stage, too. The pole bearers are accompanied by drums and fifes, and maybe some chanting…

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  2. Over here we do fine with an 8 foot pole. We secure it with an xmas tree stand, and fill in around the base of the pole with clumpable kitty litter and a bit of water. It stands up very securely. Each dancer brings three yards of whatever ribbon they like. At the top of the pole I put an eyebolt. That eyebolt has been on that pole for at least fifteen years now. Originally we were looping the ribbons through the eyebolt, but after a few years it got quite filled up, so now we tie our ribbon ends to previous ribbons. We have never bothered with the flower wreath thing. There is plenty of colorful fluff from ribbon ends around the top. I always have to remind the dancers not to pull their ribbon taut. There has to be slack in the ribbon or else the entire enterprise has tension in it. We think of the Maypole as knot magic, so we will write our intentions (briefly) (I had to limit some of these people to a certain number of words) (being a strict HP) on the ribbon before we tie up and begin weaving. We sing stuff out but there is no script. It’s fun. We do get a little drunk. During the rest of the year the pole leans into a corner of my room, looking quite phallic and festive all alone. It’s built up to be rather thick now.

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