The Origin of Maypoles

The article below is taken from ‘The Barwicker’ magazine, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society:-

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The Origin of Maypoles

From the Barwicker No. 5
March 1987

Author: Jane Deacon

May Day celebrations have always had a place in our calendar through the ages. It is possible to trace their origins to both Roman and Celtic sources since elements of both these early festivals are evident in the history of later May Day customs. However, fundamental to both is the celebration of the end of winter and the return of summer.

The pre-christian Romans observed the festival of Floralia in honour of Flora, goddess of flowers. In certain parts of the country May Day was known as “Furry Day”, possibly derived from “Flora” .

Roman mythology also tells of Kybele, goddess of flowers and fruitfulness, whose lover, Attis, was gored by a wild boar and bled to death under a pine tree. The distraught Kybele believed that the spirit of Attis had been transferred to the tree and she therefore had it cut down and brought back to Rome, decorated with flowers and garlands. A period of mourning was then observed after which Attis’s spirit was resurrected and restored to Kybele, symbolising the rebirth of all living things in the spring. Great celebrations followed and it is suggested that this is the origin of the custom of bringing back a tree from the woods and setting it up as a Maypole, decorated with flowers and garlands. However, the story itself may be a rationalisation of a custom already well established since such dying and rising stories are common in most mythologies.

There is little evidence in our own customs of the Celtic tradition which celebrated May Day by the lighting of bonfires and the eating of a special flour and milk pudding cooked on those fires. This practice recurs in various later customs where the importance of milk is observe and a similar batter or “Hasty” pudding is eaten in tribute to the housewife who has made her provisions last so well through the winter.

Our own customs preserve in some form many of the elements of the Roman tradition. In the past, young people would go to the woods on the night before May Day or early in the morning and bring back a tree decorated with flowers and garlands. The tree would be set up in a central place as a Maypole and would be the focal point of the day’s celebrations.

Garlands have always played an important part in the proceedings and they are described in the Literary Gazette in 1847 as being “firmed from a hoop for a rim with two half hoops attached to it, crossed above, much in the shape of a crown; each member is beautifully adorned with flowers.” (Our own garlands are still very similar to this in shape). The garlands were suspended on a pole and taken round from house to house, just as we still do today.

An essential part of May Day celebrations has always been the procession round the neighbourhood accompanied by loud music, usually played on horns and bagpipes. We might see an evolution of this tradition in the brass bands which until recently led our own procession round the village.

Inevitably, the holiday atmosphere and excessive eating and drinking must have led to unruly behavior and this was much disapproved of by the Puritans who banned maypoles in 1644. Very few maypoles were left standing in defiance of this edict, but Barwick may well have been one of them. Maypoles and May Day celebrations were again allowed after the restoration of the monarchy.

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