History of the Maypole

May Day Celebrations In Glastonbury
A traditional Maypole is raised in Glastonbury. Matt Cardy / Getty Images

If you’ve spent any length of time in the pagan community at all, you know that some celebrations stand out as being favorites. For many of us, Samhain is at the top of that list, but it’s followed very closely by the spring Beltane sabbat. This festival of fire and fertility arrives every year on May Day (if you’re in the northern hemisphere) and goes back hundreds of years to early European customs. Most people have seen a Beltane Maypole dance, but what are the origins of this custom?

Early Fertility Rituals

The most likely theory, according to historians, is that Maypole dancing originated in Germany and was taken to the British Isles by invading forces, where it expanded as part of a fertility ritual held every spring. It’s also likely that the dancing as we know it today—with flower garlands and brightly colored ribbons—is more connected to a 19th-century historical revival than to actual ancient customs.

It is believed that the earliest Maypoles were actually living trees, rather than just being a cut pole, as we know them today. Oxford professor and anthropologist E.O. James discusses the Maypole and its connection to Roman traditions in his 1962 article "The Influence of Folklore on the History of Religion." James suggests that trees were stripped of their leaves and limbs, and then decorated with garlands of ivy, vines, and flowers as part of the Roman spring celebration. This may have been part of the festival of Floralia, which began on April 28. Other theories include that the trees, or poles, were wrapped in violets as homage to Attis and Cybele

There’s not much documentation about the early years of this celebration, but by the Middle Ages, most villages in Britain had an annual Maypole celebration. In rural areas, the Maypole was typically erected on the village green, but a few places, including some urban neighborhoods in London, had a permanent Maypole that stayed up year round.

The Influence of the Puritans

Because Beltane festivities usually kicked off the night before with a big bonfire, the Maypole celebration usually took place shortly after sunrise the next morning. This was when couples (and probably more than a few surprised triads) came staggering in from the fields, clothes in disarray and straw in their hair after a night of bonfire-inspired lustiness.

During the 17th century, Puritanical leaders frowned upon the use of the Maypole in celebration; after all, it was a giant phallic symbol in the middle of the village green. Over the next 200 or so years, the custom of Maypole dancing around Britain seems to have waned, except in some of the more remote rural areas.

Bringing Back Tradition

By the late 19th century, middle- and upper-class English people discovered an interest in their country’s rural traditions. Country living, and all that came with it, was espoused as being far more desirable than the squalor of city life, and an author named John Ruskin is largely responsible for the revival of the Maypole. Victorian Maypoles were erected as part of church May Day celebrations, and while there was still dancing, it was far more organized and structured than the wild, frenzied abandon of the Maypole dances of centuries past.

The Maypole custom traveled to America with British immigrants, and in a few places, it was seen as quite a scandalous return to the past. In Plymouth, a gentleman named Thomas Morton decided to erect a giant Maypole in his field, brewed a batch of hearty mead, and invited village lasses to come frolic about. Being that this was 1627, his neighbors were appropriately appalled. Miles Standish himself came along to break up the sinful festivities. Morton later shared the bawdy song that accompanied his Maypole revelry, which included the lines, 

"Drink and be merry, merry, merry, boys,
Let all your delight be in Hymen's joys.
Lo to Hymen now the day is come,
about the merry Maypole take a room.
Make green garlons, bring bottles out,
and fill sweet Nectar, freely about.
Uncover thy head, and fear no harm,
for here's good liquor to keep it warm.
Then drink and be merry, merry, merry, boys,
Let all your delight be in Hymen's joys."

Today, many modern pagans celebrate Beltane with a Maypole dance as part of the festivities. With a little planning you can incorporate the Maypole dance into your own celebrations. If you don’t have the space for a full-fledged Maypole dance, don’t worry. You can still celebrate the fertility symbolism of the Maypole by making a small tabletop version to include on your Beltane altar.