The Maypole

The general principle of the heavenly column appears to be very ancient, seemingly going back at least 3,000 years. A remarkable pointed conical golden object called a goldkegel found at Ezelsdorf, near Nuremberg, and dating from 1100 bce, is believed to be the top of such a pillar. Also, from the evidence of enormous post-holes, it appears that votive posts were erected in the Celtic sacred enclosures favoured in Germany and France. In more recent times, maypoles have been set up each year to celebrate the Celtic festival of Beltane. The custom was formerly widespread throughout northern Europe, but its use has dwindled in the British Isles. A visit to southern Germany on Mayday is recommended for readers who want some idea of what maypole festivities were like in former times in Celtic countries. We know of the customs from relatively recent records, but there is no reason to suggest that they were not substantially the same in ancient times. Indeed, during the Reformation, Protestants pointed out their Pagan origin and condemned them as such, and that was the end of the Maytide celebrations in many places. However, this view of folk-culture is needlessly harsh and rigid. To most participants in any folk festival, the religious component is less important than the enjoyment

it brings. The great Mardi Gras carnivals of New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, ostensibly commemorating the beginning of the fast period of Lent, are perfect examples of this.

In former times, the Welsh maypole was a birch tree, as it is in some parts of Germany today. In his Crefydd yr Oesoedd Tywyll (1852), the bard Nefydd (William Roberts) left an account of Welsh traditions of Codi'r Fedweti (raising the birch), which was accompanied by the dawns yfedwen (the dance of the birch), a kind of morris dancing. 'The May-pole was prepared by painting it in different colours,' wrote Nefydd, 'then the leader of the dance would come and place his circle of ribbon about the pole, and each in his turn after him, until the May-pole was all rib-bons from one end to the other. Then it was raised into position and the dance begun.' Dancing around the pole was the main activity of Mayday. In some localities, a number of poles were set up close to one another. They created a 'round' of stopping-places which were visited in order by the revellers in the manner of the pilgrims' crosses at holy places. Until the nineteenth century, people of Tenby in Pembrokeshire would set up a number of maypoles in the town on Mayday. They were used as stopping-places for a round-dance of the town. An account of 1858 tells us that 'May-poles were reared up in different parts of the town, decorated with flowers, coloured papers, and bunches of variegated ribbon. On May-day, the young men and maidens would, joining hand

This English permanent maypole on the village green at Wellow, Nottinghamshire, is painted spirally with the national colours of red, white and blue, and bears the solar emblem of a gilded weathercock at the summit. (Nigel Petmick)

in hand, dance round the May-poles and "thread the needle" A group from fifty to too persons would wend their way from one pole to another, till they had traversed the town ' In some places, similar poles were also erected to mark midsummer. Yfedwen haf, the summer birch, was erected in the Vale of Glamorgan on St John's Day, 24 June. Similar to the maypole, the summer birch was garlanded before the dancers circled it.

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