A Brief History of the Maypole Dance

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

The maypole dance is a spring ritual long known to Western Europeans. Usually performed on May 1 (May Day), the folk custom is done around a pole garnished with flowers and ribbon to symbolize a tree. Practiced for generations in countries such as Germany and England, the maypole tradition dates back to the dances ancient people used to do around actual trees in hopes of harvesting a large crop.

Today, the dance is still practiced and holds special significance to pagans, including Wiccans, who have made a point to take part in the same customs their ancestors did. But people both new and old to the tradition may not know the complicated roots of this simple ritual. The history of the maypole dance reveals that a variety of events gave rise to the custom.

A Tradition in Germany, Britain, and Rome

Historians have suggested that maypole dancing originated in Germany and traveled to the British Isles courtesy of invading forces. In Great Britain, the dance became part of a fertility ritual held every spring in some areas. By the Middle Ages, most villages 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 ritual was also popular in ancient Rome, however. The late Oxford professor and anthropologist E.O. James discusses the Maypole's 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 an homage to the mythological couple Attis and Cybele

The Puritan Effect on the Maypole

In the British Isles, the maypole celebration usually took place the morning after Beltane, a celebration to welcome spring that included a big bonfire. When couples performed the maypole dance, they had usually come staggering in from the fields, clothes in disarray, and straw in their hair after a night of lovemaking. This led 17th-century Puritans to frown upon the use of the Maypole in celebration; after all, it was a giant phallic symbol in the middle of the village green.

The Maypole in the United States

When the British settled in the U.S., they brought the maypole tradition with them. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1627, a man named Thomas Morton erected a giant maypole in his field, brewed a batch of hearty mead, and invited village lasses to come frolic with him. His neighbors were appalled, and Plymouth leader Myles 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."

A Revival of the Tradition

In England and the U.S., the Puritans managed to quash the maypole celebration for roughly two centuries. But by the late 19th century, the custom regained popularity as the British people took an interest in their country’s rural traditions. This time around the poles appeared as part of church May Day celebrations, which included dancing but were more structured than the wild maypole dances of centuries past. The maypole dancing practiced today is likely connected to the dance's revival in the 1800s and not to the ancient version of the custom.

The Pagan Approach

Today, many pagans include a maypole dance as part of their Beltane festivities. Most lack the space for a full-fledged maypole but still manage to incorporate the dance into their celebrations. They use the fertility symbolism of the maypole by making a small tabletop version to include on their Beltane altar, and then, they dance nearby.