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May Day
and the Maypole

by Peter May

Come lasses and lads, get leave of your dads,
And away to the Maypole hie,
For every he has got him a she,
And the fiddler's standing by.
(Come Lasses & Lads - Anon)

I  f May Day makes you think of workers' demonstrations or the Soviet Army parading its missiles, think again. It is one of our traditional Pagan holidays, and the only one not taken over by the Christian Church. Only recently was it given the status of a public holiday and ever since it's been under threat from those unaware of its non-political traditions.

    May Day, the first day of May, was a time when people celebrated the arrival of spring. Winter was dying and new crops were beginning to show above the warming soil. The people had survived another winter and could look forward to the fruits of the earth. Villagers would cut branches and decorate houses with the fresh green growth, the symbol of the earth's fertility. A Queen of the May might be chosen to oversee festivities. The spirit of the day is represented by 'Jack-in-the-Green', a man covered in leaves, or hidden in a wooden basket woven with branches. He is The Green Man', being the embodiment of nature and fertility, and thus of life, and is an enduring image. He is remembered even now - in countless pub names.

    The ending of winter allowed villagers to enjoy the open air, and on the village green celebratory dancing took place. A birch pole was erected and dancing took place around it.

    In towns, the May Pole was a permanent feature. In London's Leadenhall Street there was a May Pole so tall that the nearby church was called the Church of St Andrew Undershaft.

    The origin of the May Pole is lost in time. It would appear to be a fertility symbol, or perhaps a reference to the tree worship central to English life (consider the yew tree planted by every church, the importance of mistletoe, the holy oak, the holly and the ivy).

    Correspondence in the Guardian newspaper proposed the May Pole as being an early form of stored program. The various patterns made by the coloured ribbons being a record of the dancers' movements. In the 1650s, during Puritan rule, May Poles were cut down; the effects of the Puritan anti-pleasure edicts linger still today. But dancing around the pole never completely died out and there was a revival in Victorian times, with an increasing interest in folklore. correspondence Samual Pepys records in his diary for 1661 that he

'... saw dancing in the Strand, many milkmaids with their garlands on their pails dancing with a fiddler before them'.
I remember dancing around the May Pole annually at school in the 1950's although its history was never explained to me. I was interested to recently see a similar pole in Sweden, wrapped in ribbons, with a garland of evergreens, erected in public places in summer.

    May Day is an important time in the Pagan calendar. Its eve is known as Walpurgis night in Germanic countries. As Beltane it was the Gaelic fire festival, and in classical times it was the festival of Hades, god of the Underworld.

    In western Perthshire, the village of Callander celebrated Beltane with a bonfire and a large cake known as the Beltane Cake. The cake was divided in pieces, with one portion blackened with charcoal. The pieces of the cake were drawn blindfolded from a bonnet and the person who picked the blackened piece was chosen to represent the sacrifice to Belinus, the Lord of Beltane. That person had to leap thrice through the bonfire flames, an echo, surely, of Pagan sacrifices.

    May Day is an ancient traditional holiday. It is our loss that we do not celebrate coming summer with the intensity of our forebears. But we do not live in such harmony with the seasons. However May Day is a holiday we should keep, for the echoes of the past still vibrate, and it is not too late to dance around the May Pole.

 

 

I'll be celebrating May Day with a glass of fresh crisp English wine - Phoenix from Three Choir Vineyards, and accompanying dinner with this - my new house wine, the very appropriately named Bordeaux Clos de May

 

Clos de May label

If you have been, thanks for reading.

© Copyright Peter May 2002.
peter@winelabels.org

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www.winelabels.org/artsom1.htm
1 May 2002
peter@winelabels.org