When I was a very little girl my family lived in a small village in central Vermont which had no preschool program, so my parents sent me to a private school the next town over. My memories of this school are positively idyllic: reading Peter Rabbit, singing, games, toast. A singular memory, reinforced by a photograph of me looking like a little dark-haired Swiss girl in a dirndl, is of a Maypole, and going round and round it holding my ribbon. Because of the Maypole, May Day was the most special holiday to me as a child, and I’ve tried to keep it up as an adult, with wreaths and May wine (made with sweet woodruff, a great spring plant) and a general spirit of merriment. But I’ve yet to erect a Maypole in my backyard.
It is interesting to me that my experience with the Maypole happened in Vermont, the least puritanical of all the New England states. The Puritans hated Maypoles, and any ceremony or ritual or image that detracted from the word of God. So dancing around the Maypole, a very popular custom in the medieval and Tudor eras, was prohibited during much of the very Puritan seventeenth century, both in old and New England. There was definitely a revival in the eighteenth century, but it might have been too late for Massachusetts. Thank goodness I had my Vermont childhood!
It’s hard to separate survival and revival in the history of the Maypole, but the custom seems to have been alive and well in the Elizabethan era, as illustrated by these amazing painted glass panels from the later sixteenth century depicting a Maypole and the various “Morris Dancers” who danced around it on May Day. They are from Betley Hall in Staffordshire, and were somehow saved from Puritan iconoclasm and incorporated into a later house. May Day celebrations seem to be part of every romantic history of the Elizabethan era, if only because the first Elizabeth makes a perfect May Queen.
Betley Hall glass panels, later sixteenth century, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; “May Day in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth”, Hodgson & Graves print, c. 1836, British Museum, London.
After the English Revolution, the maypoles of England reappeared, including a famously tall one in the Strand in London (to which, according to Walter Thornbury’s “St Mary-le-Strand and the Maypole” , Old and New London, Volume 3 (1878), Sir Isaac Newton attached his telescope) and in the center of the weeks-long “May Fair” in the Mayfair neighborhood. The Great Fire and the great rebuilding of the later seventeenth and and eighteenth centuries removed maypoles from the streets of London but the custom apparently continued, as they appear in print and paintings as symbols of “Merry Old England”. This particular symbolism seems to intensify in the nineteenth century, an age of dynamic change which threatened to sweep everything away that was both merry and old. There is a definite revival of the Maypole motif in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century by the Arts and Crafts movement; as the old merrymaking custom endures, so too will traditional craftsmanship in the midst of mass production.
Edward Henry Corbould, May Day, 1873, British Museum, London; Kate Elinor Lambert, Woodcut device for the Stanton Press, 1921-22.
Another later nineteenth-century trend–the politicization of everything–also affected the maypole, which was appropriated primarily by the left side of the political spectrum, coincidentally with the association of May Day with workers’ movements. Below are two illustrations of a more modern Maypole: around which monopolists and workers dance.
Frederick Barr Opper, the Monopolists’ May-pole (including lots of Vanderbilts), Puck Magazine, 1885 and Walter Crane, The Workers’ May-pole”, 1894, Library of Congress.
Back to basics: of course, the survival (or revival) of the Maypole, in the nineteenth century and today, might simply be due to the fact that it provides entertainment for children, who probably see no greater meaning in its form than the focus of a simple dance in celebration of spring! That’s my memory.
May Day in Central Park, c. 1905, Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress; May Pole by Jennifer Davis, Etsy.