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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High Spring: Themes, Resources and Ideas

As the vernal equinox (which in my version of the Wheel of the Year I term High Spring) approaches, Pagans everywhere prepare to celebrate this important Sabbath.

As the “Spring festival” (whether you consider it the beginning of Spring or, as I do, the height of it), themes of High Spring include new life, youth. childhood, innocence. inspiration, new beginnings and the initiation of new projects and efforts, and balance (just as the equinox is the balance point between the primarily-dark and the primarily-light halves of the year). Here where I am, at least. the world is green and blooming with flowers, and hope is in the air.

Some common ritual activities for High Spring include dyeing eggs (a pre-Christian tradition going back thousands of years in Europe), planting seeds (I prefer wildflower mixes native to my region), cleaning one’s Focus (altar) and/or home, and playing childlike games. Ritual foodstuffs for this Sabbath often include “Easter” candy; I like to serve sparkling cider for the kids and sparkling wine for adults—preferably with a strawberry in each glass for festive color.

Gatherings for High Spring often focus on children and childlike games and activities. In past years, we have played Chutes and Ladders and Candyland at High Spring gatherings; for more active activities, playground games like “tag” can actually be a lot of fun for adults as well as children. And, of course, a hunt for dyed eggs for the kids is traditional and exciting (but please, avoid plastic eggs and toys to as great an extent as possible).

High Spring is a great time for contemplative practices, too. Meditation topics can include, “What am I hoping for now?”; “Where am I needing to seek balance in my life?”; and, “What am I planting for this year’s harvest?”, as examples.

High Spring is a happy time. It is a Sabbath for forgetting our lives’ burdens for a moment, and being in the moment in joy, knowing that renewal is possible, hope springs eternal, and light and warmth are growing for the year. I hope yours is wonderful.

The Ritual Cycle of the Rain Baby: An Example

So, last year I wrote about a new tradition for Riverain, the Water Sabbath, which is how I celebrate the holiday that falls between the Winter Solstice (Yule) and the Spring Equinox (High Spring). Riverain comes at the height of the wet season in California’s Mediterranean climate, when the hills are green and the creeks and rivers are running high.

Riverain is an example of my firm belief that the Sabbaths (holidays) we celebrate around the Wheel of the Year should be rooted in the actual climate, culture, growth cycles, and land where we live, rather than reflecting some other culture or place in the world. The traditional Pagan holiday at the time of Riverain, Imbolc, is a Celtic-named time the traditions of which include “casting seeds upon the snow”; this has no relevance to me in California (if it does for you, of course, that’s great–go ahead and celebrate it!)

So this new tradition—the weaving of a Rain Baby, a corn-husk doll that represents the cycle of water through the year—started last year but I am fleshing out how it plays out through the year now.

The Rain Baby is born (crafted) at Riverain, and kept on the household Focus.

The Baby is a child/toddler at High Spring (the vernal equinox), and presides over the childlike games and festivities of that Sabbath.

The Rain Baby becomes an adolescent at May Day, and is not involved in the celebration of that adult Sabbath. The Rain Baby may be kept on the May Day Focus, but should be shrouded in fabric so they cannot watch the adult, sexual aspects of May Day.

The Rain Baby emerges from this “cocoon” of social shielding as an adult on Midsummer, ready to do their work as the Bringer of the Harvest. The Rain Baby presides over the Focuses of Midsummer and Harvest. Also at Harvest, we gather the corn shucks which will be used to make the Rain Baby of the next cycle.

At Hallows, after the harvests are all done, the Rain Baby is burned in the Hallows fire, to go back up into the sky and fall as rain for the next cycle.

The Rain Baby is a cycle of observances that adds another layer to the Wheel of the Year, lending meaning and tradition to my annual celebrations. I encourage each of you to think about how you can layer practices and meaningful traditions into your own annual cycle of celebrations. Have fun with it!