May Pole

This postcard of a May Day scene comes from the web site created by Barbara Marlow Irwin An excerpt from my May Day holiday packet, available at the store.

Spicer in The Book of Festivals says that throughout Eastern Europe, young men go into the woods on May Eve to chop down young fir trees for their sweethearts. The tree is decorated with ribbon and colored eggshells and planted outside the bedroom window, before the gate or on the roof of the house of the beloved. Spicer says that the longer the tree, the longer her life, but I wonder, given the phallic connotations of the Maypole, if the length of the tree really represents something else.

In Scandinavia and Germany, May trees were important for both people and animals and were set up before doors, sometimes one for each animal in a stable. These countries, in which a pastoral lifestyle was an important part of the economy, preserved the sense that this was a time of the year when protection was necessary.

It’s my belief that as you go farther north, and the weather gets colder, seasonal customs further behind, so that the Maypole is more frequently found at Midummer in Scandinavian countries although it is still called the majstang or maypole.

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.) According to Carol Field, Italians also decorate garlands with lemons and ribbons and bring male and female trees into the piazza to be married on May Day, both customs that seem to be part of the Maypole tradition.

In English villages, the Maypole is often decorated with a broom or bush and brought in from the woods with girls riding astride it. The Puritan Stubbes reports (with some disgust) in 1583 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.

The cavalier poet, Robert Herrick, reflects on the mating and fertility aspect of the Maypole, referring in this poem to the garlands his daughters made to be placed on the Maypole in hopes of catching rich husbands:

The May-pole is up,
Now give me the cup;
I’ll drink to the Garlands a-round it:
But first unto those
Whose hands did compose
The glory of flowers that crown’d it.
A health to my Girls,
Whose husbands may Earls
Or Lords be, (granting my wishes)
And when that ye wed
To the Bridal Bed,
Then multiply all, like to Fishes.

The Puritans so disapproved of the heathen implications and phallic connotations of the Maypole, that they outlawed them altogether on April 8, 1644 with these words:

And because the profanation of the Lord’s-day hath been heretofore greatly occasioned by Maypoles (a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness), the Lords and Commons do further order and ordain That all and singular May-poles that are, or shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed.

Yet, the custom was already passing away, as recorded by poet, William Fennor, in 1619:

Happy the age and harmless were the days
(For then true love and amity were found)
When every village did a Maypole raise,
And Witson-ales and May-games did abound…
Alas, poor May Poles; what should be the cause,
That you were almost banish’d from the earth?
Who never were rebellious to the laws;
Your greatest crime was harmless, honest mirth.

In a similar vein, one of the medieval Welsh poets, Griffith ab Adda, wrote a sad poem chastizing the May pole, which has given up its green grove to wither in the town. I hadn’t thought before about the pathos of the cut tree, like the sadness I feel when I see discarded Christmas trees stuffed into trash cans after Christmas.  Here are a few lines from the poem as translated by Joseph P Clancy:

Songs of all sorts, well-fashioned,
I heard in your green home;
Herbs of all kinds grew under
Your leaves amid hazel shoots,
When to a maiden’s pleasure
You dwelt last year in the grove.

Resources:

Clancy, Joseph P., Medieval Welsh Lyrics
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy
Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun
Spicer, Gladys, The Book of Festivals
First published April 19, 2011
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