May 1st – or May Day – is the day that ushers in warmer weather, blooming flowers and trees, buzzing bees, and thoughts (and deeds) of love. People emerge from their homes ready to embrace the outdoors and shake off the gloom and chill of winter.
May Day has its origins, as most celebrations do, in Ancient Rome. The Roman festival of Flora was held from April 28th to May 3rd; Flora was the goddess of fruits and flowers. The festival spread within the Roman sphere of influence, with most European countries having some history of commemorating May Day. Maypoles have likely been in England since Hadrian, and most definitely since Elizabeth, as they were documented by historian John Stow. They were banned for a time, as was Christmas, under the Puritan zeal of Oliver Cromwell, but the Merry Monarch returned them in full glory in 1660. Huzzah!
The Maypole Dance grew from these May Day traditions. On May Day, a young tree was cut, then stuck in the ground near the village center. Early dances involved circles of people simply twirling around the pole. This later evolved into people festooning the tree with garlands and ribbons. Each person would hold the end of one ribbon, then dance around the pole and each other, weaving the ribbons together and plaiting them against the pole.
Maypole Dancing was once common around England, with many cities saving their pole from year to year. The tallest Maypole in England was said to have towered over 143 feet in London on The Strand in 1661. It stayed there until 1717, when it was purchased and removed by Sir Isaac Newton. Newton sent the Maypole to Wanstead Park in Essex as a gift to his friend, a Reverend Mr. Pound, where it was used as the support for the (then) largest telescope in Europe at 125 feet in length. The object hadn’t been in its new home for long before an enterprising author attached a poem telling the tale of the fair Maypole.
“Once I adorned the Strand,
But now have found
My way to Pound
On Baron Newton’s land;
Where my aspiring head aloft is reared,
T’ observe the motions of th’ ethereal Lord.
Here sometimes raised a machine by my side,
Through which is seen the sparkling milky tide;
Here oft I’m scented with a balmy dew,
A pleasant blessing which the Strand ne’er knew.
There stood I only to receive abuse,
But here converted to a nobler use;
So that with me all passengers will say,
‘I’m better far than when the Pole of May.”
The Maypole was still common enough to be incorporated into Georgian street slang; hence, the word of the week.
Ale Post (noun)
- Slang term definition from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- Learn more about Maypole traditions at Project Britain: British Life and Culture and Historical Harmonies.
- Read the fascinating story surrounding Sir Isaac Newton and the relocation of The Strand Maypole at British History Online.
- For those discerning cartoon aficionados, you may recognize the meter of Come Lasses and Lads as the same tune Daffy Duck sings as Robin Hood while rounding up his Merry Men. Start your Monday with a smile and “trip along merrily.”