Many of the visitors to my website will be celebrating Beltane this weekend with their circles, covens and communities (in addition to their solitary or family rites earlier this week). So I thought I would share a little more about this joyous holiday.
May has long been known as the “Merry Month” and our European ancestors used to deck themselves in greenery and flowers, and went about “wearing the green.” Everywhere, everything is bursting with life and fertility at this time, and Beltane is a celebration of this. The cutting and bedecking with the May blossoms had great significance and symbolized the beginning of new life and the onset of the growing season.
Maypole and Morris dancing were May Day customs celebrated in England in the late 1700s, but mentioned in Europe as far back as the 12th century. “Bringing in the May” meant going out into the woods and fields on May Eve, the night before May Day, to gather flowers and greenery for decorations, and also to enjoy the many amorous possibilities of an unchaperoned night in the woods.
Jennifer Cutting, Folklife Specialist at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center writes that, “By the Middle Ages, every English village had its Maypole. The earliest Maypoles were tall trees stripped of their branches, and one village would vie with the next to show who could produce the tallest one. On May Day itself, the Maypole served as the centerpiece for sports, dancing and games that took place around it.”
She points out that, “Both May Eve and May Day were traditionally a time of letting your hair down and getting a little crazy, of acting out your spring fever. But as early as 1240, the Bishop of Lincoln complained in writing that too many priests were also joining in the fun! Later, the Puritans in both Britain and America disapproved of Maypoles as, ‘a heathenish vanity of superstition and wickedness.’ In fact, according to historians, when Thomas Morton raised a Maypole on Boston’s south shore in 1627, he was promptly arrested by Myles Standish and eight men from the Plymouth Colony.”
In 1644, so powerful were the Puritans, they succeeded in completely banning Maypoles, and as Jennifer describes it, they “gleefully went out and chopped them all down.” But in 1660, with the Restoration of King Charles II, Maying returned. Over the years its popularity cycled up and down. But in the mid-1800s, it “took a different turn in the hands of middle-class Victorians who were waxing nostalgic about the simpler joys of their rural ancestors.
“But Victorians being Victorians,” she writes, “they purged Maying of certain of those simpler joys, and turned the celebration into a kind of polite, pretty children’s pageant. By then, the Maypole had acquired its ribbons, and school children on both sides of the Atlantic would dance around it every May Day and plait, or braid, the ribbons.”
Originally, Maypole dancing was a plain circle dance without ribbons. Over the years, however, it has become popular to not only plait ribbons, but for the dancers to do various dance steps called figures, and weave in and around each other so that the ribbons interlace in patterns that have names, such as Barber’s Pole, Single Plait, Spider’s Web, and Three in Hand.
In any case, if you should go a-Maying today, I hope you’ll remember that you are dancing in the footsteps of the Ancestors. May your rites overflow with the intoxication that is now filling the world around you. May you abandon yourself to the sweet joys of being alive! Let your celebrations be a reminder of how it is not only possible, but delightful to to live in balance, and find glad harmony with the spirits of Nature and the Green world.
May you always honor the God, the betrothed lover, and His union with the Goddess, Who is the real Queen of the May.