AskDefine | Define maypole

Dictionary Definition

maypole n : a vertical pole or post decorated with streamers that can be held by dancers celebrating May Day

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A pole, garlanded with streamers held by people who dance around it to celebrate May Day


Extensive Definition

This article discusses the tall wooden pole. For other uses see Maypole (disambiguation)
The maypole is a tall wooden pole (traditionally of maple (Acer), hawthorn or birch), sometimes erected with several long coloured ribbons suspended from the top, festooned with flowers, draped in greenery and strapped with large circular wreaths, depending on local and regional variances. What is often thought of as the "traditional" English/British maypole (a somewhat shorter, plainer version of the Scandinavian pole with ribbons tied at the top and hanging to the ground) is a relatively recent development of the tradition and is probably derived from the picturesque, Italianate dances performed in mid-19th century theatricals. It is usually this shorter, plainer maypole that people (usually school children) perform dances around, weaving the ribbons in and out to create striking patterns.
With roots in Germanic paganism, the maypole traditionally appears in most Germanic countries, Germanic country-bordering and countries invaded by Germanic tribes after the fall of the Roman Empire (like Spain, France and Italy), but most popularly in Germany, Sweden, Austria, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Finland in modern times for Spring, May Day, Beltane and Midsummer festivities and rites.

Regional traditions



In Greece people do the maypole dance. Maypole is referred as Mayoksylo ( Μαγιόξυλο)and it also has a phallic symbolism. Mayoksylo is the trunk of a young cypress tree, decorated with yellow daisies and fruits. People traditionally gather wild flowers and make a wreath with them.
In Corfu island they have to steal the flowers from gardens to make the wreath. They hang this wreath on the front door and they burn it in the bonfires of summer solstice, the day of St John the Baptist's birthday also known as midsummer (June 24). In the south, especially in the island of Krete they avoid marriages, as May is considered to be the month of the dead and the marriage would be an unlucky one.


In Sweden and swedish speaking parts of Finland the maypole is usually called a midsummer pole, midsommarstång, as it appears at the Midsummer celebrations, although the literal translation majstång also occurs. The traditions surround they maypoles vary locally, as does the design of the poles, although the somewhat phallic design of a cross with two rings is most common. Common in all of Sweden are traditional ring dances, mostly in the form of dances where you are alternating dancing and making movements and gestures based on on the songs, such as pretending that you are scrubbing laundry while singing about washing, or jumping as frogs during the song Små grodorna (The little frogs). The ring dancing is thus naturally mostly popular with small children.
In the 16th century maypoles were communal symbols, being erected as group activities by a parish (or by several parishes in concert if they did not have the means to do so individually). They were often the focus of rivalries between villages, who would steal one anothers' poles. (In Hertfordshire in 1602 and in Warwickshire in 1639 such thefts led to violence.) Owners of woods and forests (such as the Earl of Huntingdon in 1603 who was furious to discover that his estates had been the source of the maypoles used in Leicester) were also the victims of theft, as it was often the case that they were not consulted about the use of their timber.
Hostility towards maypoles, emanating from evangelical Protestants, grew, first manifesting itself significantly during the Reformation of Edward VI, when a preacher denounced the Cornhill maypole as an idol, causing it to be taken out of storage, sawn up, and burned. Under Mary and Elizabeth I this opposition to traditional festivities lacked government support, with Elizabeth recorded as being fond of them, but Protestant pressure to remove maypoles, as a symbol of the mixed-gender dancing, drunkenness, and general merry-making on Sundays that they opposed (see Sabbatarianism), grew nonetheless. Between 1570 and 1630, maypoles were banned from Banbury, Bristol, Canterbury, Coventry, Doncaster, Leicester, Lincoln, and Shrewsbury; and there is no historical evidence for their use inside the city limits of London. Of the four Berkshire villages whose accounts still exist, three sold their maypoles between 1588 and 1610. However, the trend was not uniformly towards the banning of maypoles. There are many records of their continued use in the 1630s, and Charles I and James I explicitly allowed maypole dancing on Sundays.
The tallest maypole in Britain can be found in the village of Welford-on-Avon in Warwickshire.

Czech Republic

The maypole (májka or máj) is also still popular in the Czech Republic, in country villages. Villages compete to get taller maypoles than their neighbors, and during the night the youths of a village guard the maypole to keep ruffians from neighboring villages from knocking it over (while at the same time attempting forays into neighboring villages to knock over the maypoles of others).

United States

While not celebrated amongst the general public in the United States today, a Maypole Dance nearly identical to that celebrated in the United Kingdom is an important part of many Secondary or High School dances as part of a May Day celebration. Often the Maypole dance will be accompanied by other dances as part of a presentation to the public.
The early colony of Merrymount, founded by Thomas Morton, outraged its Puritan neighbours by setting up a maypole.

Early American Colonies

The earliest use of the Maypole in America occurred in 1628, where William Bradford, governor of New Plymouth, wrote of an incident where a number of servants, together with the aid of an agent, broke free from their indentured service to create their own colony, setting up a maypole in the center of the settlement, and behaving in such a manner as to receive the scorn and disapproval of the nearby colonies, as well as an official officer of the king, bearing patent for the state of Massachusetts:
“Some three or four years before this there came over one, Captain Wollaston a man of fine qualities, with three or four others of some distinction, who brought with them a great many servants, with provisions and other necessaries to found a settlement. They pitched up n a place within Massachusetts, which they called after their Captain, Mount Wollaston. Among them was one, Mr. Morton, who, it seems, had some small share with them in the enterprise, either on his own account or as an agent; but he was little respected amongst them and even alighted by the servants. Having remained there some time, and not finding things answer their expectations, Captain Wollaston took the majority of the servants to Virginia, where he hired out their services, profitably to the employers. So wrote up Mr. Rasdell, one of the chief partners who was acting as their merchant, to bring another party of them to Virginia for the same purpose. With the consent of Rasdell he appointed one, Fitcher, as his deputy, to govern the remnant of the colony till one of them should return. But Morton, in the other’s absence, having more craft than honesty—he had been a kind of pettifogger of Furnival’s Inn—watched his opportunity when rations were scarce with them, got some drink and other junkets, and made them a feast, and after they were merry began to tell them he would give them good counsel. ‘You see,’ says he, ‘that many of your comrades have teen taken to Virginia; and if you stay till this Rasdell returns you too will carried off and sold as slaves with the rest. So, I would advise you to oust this Lieutenant Fitcher; and I, having a share in his settlement, will take you as partners, and you will be free form service, and we will trade, plant, and live together as equals, and support and protect one another’—and so on. This advice was easily received; so they drove out Lieutenant Fitcher and would not allow him to come amongst them, forcing him to get food and other relief from his neighbours, till he could get passage to England. They then fell into utter licentiousness, and led a dissolute and profane life. Morton became lord of misrule, and maintained, as it were, a school of Atheism. As soon as they acquired some means by trading with the Indians, they spent it in drinking wine and strong drinks to great excess,--as some reported, £10 worth in a morning. '''They set up a Maypole, drinking and dancing about it for several days at a time, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, --or furies rather,-- to say nothing of worse practices. It was as if they had revived the celebrated feasts of the Roman goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians. Morton, to show his poetry, composed sundry verses and rhymes, some tending to lasciviousness and others to the detraction and scandal of some persons, affixing them to his idle, or idol, Maypole. ''' They changed the name of the place, and instead of calling it Mount Wollaston, they called it Merry Mount, as if the jollity would last forever. But it did not continue long, for, shortly after, Morton was sent back to England, as will appear. In the meantime that worthy gentleman, Mr. John Endicott, arrived from England, bringing over a patent under the broad seal, for the government of Massachusetts. Visiting their neighborhood, he had the Maypole cut down, and reprimanded them for their profaneness, admonishing them to improve their way of living. In consequence, others changed the name of the place again, and called it Mount Dagon!”


The Maypole is often considered a phallic symbol, coinciding with the worship of Germanic phallic figures such as that of Freyr. One clear sexual reference is in John Cleland's controversial novel Fanny Hill:
''...and now, disengag’d from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant.''
Potential other meanings include symbolism relating to the Yggdrasil, a symbolic axis linking the underworld, the world of the living, the heavens and numerous other realms. Also likely related, reverence for sacred trees can be found in surviving accounts of Germanic tribes, for example, Thor's Oak, Adam of Bremen's account of Sacred groves and the Irminsul.
The present day tradition of maypoles coincides geographically with the area of influence of the Germanic mythos.
The assertion of phallic symbolism in relation to Maypoles reflects its current semiotic values: celebration, community, youthfulness and the arrival of summer.

Modern popular culture

  • A maypole was featured in Men Without Hats' music video for the song "The Safety Dance".
  • The 1973 British film The Wicker Man features a musical scene with boys dancing around a maypole while singing a pagan song. The scene is continued in a classroom where an all girl class is taught the phallic symbolism of the maypole.


See also

External links

maypole in Bavarian: Maibam
maypole in Danish: Majstang
maypole in German: Maibaum
maypole in Spanish: Festividad de los Mayos
maypole in Esperanto: Majarbo
maypole in French: Arbre de mai
maypole in Hungarian: Májusfa
maypole in Italian: Albero della cuccagna
maypole in Dutch: Meiboom
maypole in Norwegian: Maistang
maypole in Low German: Maiboom
maypole in Finnish: Juhannussalko
maypole in Swedish: Midsommarstång
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