creating community through celebration

Stitching a Thin Veil

It’s amazing how quickly things fall into disrepair. Along with a handful of other Revelers, I’ve been spending some time lately refurbishing our Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss and Maypole in preparation for the coming weekend’s festivities. We had to re-glue felt, replace ribbons and re-sew seams. We built a new floral top piece, and our Maypole will now top out at a full fifteen feet. As we’ve worked, I’ve also been learning about the incredibly rich and widespread traditions that surround this celebration of what is variously called Beltane, Maifest, Holy Rood, or May Day.

Majestic as our Maypole will be, it is dwarfed by some of the forest giants employed in Finland, Sweden, and especially Germany. Around the world, the pole functions as a centerpiece to a plethora of customs, many of which have a long history of annoying the purveyors of establishment morality. In England, for example, the pole was entirely outlawed by the Puritans and the custom returned only with the restoration of the regency in 1660.

The topic of May Day revelry is attractive to many writers and researchers, and so there is no shortage of description and analysis available. Here I’ve excerpted from a very rich and readable essay on the topic by Waverly Fitzgerald. It will give you some sense of the pervasiveness and variety of May Day customs.

May Poles and Dances

(Dorothy Gladys) Spicer in The Book of Festivals says that in Eastern Europe, a young man goes into the woods on May Eve, chops down a young fir tree, decorates it with ribbons and colored eggshells, and plants it outside the bedroom window of his sweetheart. In Scandinavia and Germany, May trees are important for both people and animals and are set up before doors, sometimes one for each animal in a stable. In Italy, Maypoles are called alberi della cucagna (trees from the land of milk and honey). They are greased poles with prosciutto, mortadella cheeses and money dangling from the top. The men try to get these prizes by climbing the pole, which is greased with lard. Eventually the grease wears off and someone gets the prize. A similar custom is found in Wales. In English villages, the Maypole is often decorated with a broom or bush and brought in from the woods with girls riding astride it.

(Phillip) Stubbs reports (with some disgust) on the revelry which surrounds the Maypole: “They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nosegay of flowers tied on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this Maypole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with flowers and greens, bound round about with ribbons from top to bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colors, with two or three hundred men and women and children following it with great devotion. And this being reared up with handkerchiefs and flags streaming on the top, they strew flowers on the ground, bind green boughs about it, and set up summer halls, bowers and arbors, hard by it. And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself.” (ed. From Anatomie of Abuses) The Maypole is a symbol with many meanings. Often celebrated as and considered a phallic symbol, it also resembles the garlanded trees associated with moon goddesses. In the Phyrgian rites of Attis, celebrated around the spring equinox, a fir tree was chopped down, wrapped in a shroud and placed in a tomb. Resurrected three days later, it was decorated and danced around. In some places, May Day ceremonies took place beneath a sacred tree, which was not uprooted. These trees represented the world-tree, the axis between heaven and earth.

* * * * *

In England, May Day was also an occasion for Morris dancing and mummers' plays. Scholars have speculated that the exaggerated leaps of the Morris dancers serve as charms to show the crops how high to grow (similar dances are reported from early Roman times) and the clashing of their sticks may represent a ritual battle between summer and winter. The mummers' plays feature odd character including Green (or St) George, a hobbyhorse (or dragon), a male/female, a teaser, a jester and chimney sweeps with their brushes. Sometimes the hobbyhorse has coal under his skirts and he tries to trap young women under them. Only those who are marked with coal can dance around the maypole. Sometimes the play portrays a battle between summer and winter. Summer squirts winter with water and seizes the garland from winter and presents it to the May Queen.

The Maypole is also one of the tools with which the battle of cultural transformation was fought. To the pagan world, it was a needle that stitched together the different levels of existence at the time when the veil between the realms was thinnest, but Christianity sought to replace it with the Holy rood, or cross. While we tend to think of the Maypole dance in terms of the Victorian ideal of pinafore-clad young girls skipping decorously around a ribbon-bedecked staff, that ritual probably evolved from ancient hill people leaping wildly around Beltane bonfires, wearing considerably less than a pinafore.

Learning about the Maypole traditions, I once again caught a glimpse of what Revels really does. As we glued and stitched our sundry May Day props, we were actually taking a journey – a trip back through the centuries to round up the symbols and tools of celebration and bring them back to the present time. This May Day, as we dance the Helston Furry, Crown our May Queen and sing Hal An Tow, we honor traditions that will continue to live on just as long as there are revelers to celebrate them.

Learn more about May Day.

Here is a wonderful collection of postcards that document 19th century English Maypoles.

Learn how Scandinavians raise the Majstang.

- David Parr, Artistic Director