The Customs and Traditions of the Maypole
Location: Sturminster Marshall
Maypoles and Mayhem
The most well known symbol of May Day (1st May) is the maypole. The custom of dancing around the maypole is an ancient fertility rite, which is still performed today on village greens and at spring fetes.
The origins of the maypole hark back to ancient times when tree spirits were worshiped and indeed the first maypoles were tall slender trees, usually birch, which had their branches lopped off, leaving just a few at the top to be adorned with garlands and blossom: a far cry from the more elaborate designs of today.
The maypole itself is a phallic symbol representing the planting of the god's phallus into the mother earth's womb, there by illustrating the bringing forth of new life. In addition some maypoles are painted with red and white spiral stripes in much the same way as a barber's pole and this too has sexual meaning: the red representing the female menstrual blood and the white the male semen. The sexual symbolism of the maypole and all the immoral revelry that went along with it led the Puritans to out-law the maypole custom in 1644. However, this prohibition was soon repealed after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Many towns and parishes erected permanent maypoles in celebration, some boasting 80 or 90 feet! These permanent poles were left to stand throughout the year but only decorated and danced around on May Day.
Dancing around the maypole was once a very merry and frivolous affair, yet today's maypole dancing with its colourful ribbons is a relatively modern dance, only dating back to the nineteenth century. However, this new adaptation is now accepted as a very important aspect of the maypole dance. By taking two ribbons and weaving them together the dancers make a new element, thus two makes three representing the sexual union and the offspring.
The village of Sturminster Marshal still retains its permanent maypole. A commemorative plaque beside it reads:
In the year of 1101, the Lord of the Manor the Earl of Pembroke, granted permission for a fare to be held on this site and it is probable that the first maypole was erected at the time. Known restorations took place in year 1669, 1867 and 1897. The present maypole follows the design of the 1897 pole and stands thirty-five foot high with a static ring four foot in diameter fixed five foot from the top. A new innovation is the weathervane in the shape of a water rat - the village emblem. The pole weighs three and a half tons. The 1986 restoration was made possible by subscriptions from residents of the village, local organisations and firms. On the adjacent green a replica of the village stocks last known to have been used in 1861 has been erected.
Below: May Pole Dancing Sturminster Marshal 2004
Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922 about May Day customs and traditions:
“It was anciently the custom for all ranks of people to go out a-Maying early on the first of May” says Brand; but I do not think that there exist now in Dorsetshire many traces of the old merry dances and games, such as the Maypole dance, the Morris dancers, the milkmaids, the chimney-sweeps, the maidens' garland or flower dances and processions, which used to be so prevalent in many parts of England on May Day.
Flower and Maypole Dance, Chardstock.— In some parts of Dorsetshire, however, some few such observances still take place. For instance, in the parish of Chardstock, on the Somerset and Devon border, according to the Dorset County Chronicle in May, 1884, the children of the parish brought round garlands as usual on May Day; in the afternoon upwards of seventy of them sat down to a feast at which the local squire, the vicar, and other gentlemen and ladies were present. “Dancing round the Maypole concluded the keeping up of this old English custom'
Crowning the May Queen and Maypole Dance (Bridport).— The Dorset County Chronicle, in June, 1918, gives a very recent instance of this as occurring in the West Dorset town of Bridport:—
“On Thursday the girls of the National Schools had their annual festival of crowning the May Queen and dancing round the Maypole. There was a very good attendance of the general public, the ceremony taking place in the school-yard. Favoured with fine weather, the scene was a very picturesque one, and the proceedings were watched with the greatest interest and pleasure. The children, as is their custom, were dressed in white, and with their Queen (Vera Meech), who is elected by the votes of her schoolmates, they paraded the Rope Walks, St. Michael's Lane, and Gundry Lane, and returned to the playground. Here the Maypole was set up and the Queen was then enthroned. She recited a verse of Tennyson's May Queen, and then the Rector ' crowned ' her with a wreath of flowers. Some very pretty Maypole dances were then gone through, and some nicely rendered songs gave variety to the programme, while at the close a collection, which realized £4, was made to defray the cost of a new set of strings for the Maypole."
I have since been told that this is not a genuine folk-lore survival, but rather a sham revival, having been introduced from Whitelands College by the National Society of School teachers, taught by Ruskin. The recitation of Tennyson's May Queen would seem to confirm this ; but even if this be so, it is a decided improvement upon the usual School Board methods of recent years, which tend to destroy all traces of local folk-lore in the young people of the present age.
Maypole: Cattistock. — There is an interesting reference in H. N. Cox's serial History of Cattistock, published in the Southern Times in 1886, to the " old custom of the Maypole ", which would appear to have been regularly kept up in that village until 1835. Mr. Cox alludes to a decree of Parliament in 1644, which ordered every Maypole in England and Wales to be taken down and none afterwards to be erected. Presumably Cattistock obeyed the mandate, at all events until the Restoration. Mr. Cox goes on to say that probably as time passed on the Maypole festivities were bereft of many of their ancient customs, but even at the last there was an immense assemblage of people, and the merry dance around the gaily decked pole with its thousands of May flowers was indulged in by all parties. He remembers on one occasion the Maypole being "set up " in the open space near to the main entrance to the church and rectory, but that generally it was opposite " The Fox ", no doubt one of the principal hostelries in the village. Cattistock is still to this day an important hunting centre. Mr. Cox is of opinion that the custom was permitted to die out, not because the people disapproved of it, but that the expense of getting good music for the dance was not met by the subscriptions.
Maypole: Cerne Abbas. — Dr. Collcy March, F.S.A., in his paper on " The Giant and the Maypole of Cerne " in the Dorset Field Club's Proceedings (1901), vol. xxii, p. 105, speaks of the ordinance of the Long Parliament in April, 1644, whereby all maypoles were to be taken down and removed by the constables, churchwardens, and other parish officers; but it met with no little resistance.(Dr. March states, p. 105 (n.), that the Cerne maypole was destroyed in 1635) After the advent of Charles II the Maypole was set up again, and had a long life. Dr. March quotes from an old sexton at Cerne, who well remembered it:—
“It was made," he said,” every year from a fir-bole, and was raised in a night. It was erected in the ring just above the Giant. It was decorated, and the villagers went up the hill and danced round the pole on the 1st of May.”
This hill was Trendle Hill, situated about half a mile from the town, upon the steep southern declivity of which the famous figure of the giant was cut in the chalk.
According to authorities cited by Dr. March, “the festival of the maypole” was not unattended by scenes that “called forth ample invective". Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomic of Abuses, 1583, refers to a custom when "hundreds of men, women, and children go off to the woods and groves and spend all the night in pastimes, and in the morning they would return with birche boughes and branches of trees to deck their assembles withal. And they bring home with great veneration the Maie-pole, their stinking idol rather, covered all over with flowers and herbes, and then fall they to leaping and dancing about it, as the heathen people did. I have heard it crediblie reported by men of great gravity that, of an hundred maides going to the wood, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again as they went.”
Maypole: Shillingston.—William Barnes in his Fore-say (ante) speaks of this decline in the old maypole customs. He says: “Dorset formerly had its maypoles, but Shillingston, clustering round its softly rising knap, may now be the only Dorset village which keeps up the tall token of a merry May Day.”
In the Life of William Barnes, by his daughter, Mrs. Lucy E. Baxter, published in 1887 under the pseudonym of “Leader Scott ", she gives (p. 150) a poem of her father's, hitherto unpublished, called " Our Early Landscape ",—in which the poet alludes to the maypole at Shillingston in the following lines :—
"And Shillingston, that on her height Shows up her tower to op'ning day, And high-shot Maypole, yearly dight With flow'ry wreaths of merry May."
Stocking of Poundbury Field, Dorchester. — William Barnes in the above Fore-say also refers to the annual stocking of Poundbury Field, near Dorchester, on May Day under the head of customs at set times or given days of the year. The field is now enclosed, but " Dorchester folk were wont in olden time, it is said, to go forth to its flowery and airy sward a-maying and to drink syllybub of fresh milk".
Flower Service: Bridport. — The town of Bridport in West Dorset has for many years been prominent in keeping up an old flower custom on May Sunday—the first Sunday in May. The Bridport News in May, 1885, gave an interesting account of the ceremony, where on “May Sunday " the children, to the number of 312, assembled at the schools in Gundry Lane, and having been duly marshalled in procession, marched to the parish church, carrying flowers. They came up South Street as far as the old castle, and going down the east side of the street crossed again by the rectory, and entered the church by the west door, occupying seats in the nave, which were given up to them for the occasion by the parishioners who generally used them. The children were accompanied by their superintendent and also by their teachers. Divine service followed, and in the afternoon the usual children's service was held. The bells were rung spiritedly at intervals during the day and a flag was hoisted, as usual, on the church tower.
Again, in May, 1890, the Bridport News recorded that, in accordance with the usual custom, the first Sunday in May was kept by the scholars of the Bridport Parish Church Sunday Schools by the usual special and joyous services. Shortly after 7 a.m. the bells of the parish church (St. Mary's) pealed forth to herald in the school anniversary, and at 8 o'clock there was a full choral celebration of the Holy Communion. In his sermon the Rector, the Rev. E. J. B. Henslowe, alluded to the origin of May Sunday celebrations in Bridport, and to the fact that it was an institution not celebrated to his knowledge in any other town, but was peculiar to Bridport. He said that years ago there was no proper school, but classes were held by different people in their own houses'; these classes used to meet once a year, and have a procession and go to church.
In the afternoon the usual flower service was held. The scholars formed in procession and again marched to the church. The rector officiated. The service commenced with a hymn, and then the scholars passed up to the chancel steps and presented their floral offerings. While another hymn was being sung flowers were presented by members of the congregation. The service was then proceeded with. The flowers were afterwards packed and forwarded to London for some of the hospitals. Again, in May, 1905, the Bridport News contributed a long leading article on the subject which it styled "
May Sunday : A Link with the Past". It dealt fully with the origin of the present flower-custom in Bridport, and referred to the institution of Sunday Schools in Bridport in connexion with St. Mary's Church in 1788. At that time the procession formed almost a complete “perambulation” of the parish boundaries, and many visitors would come in from the country “to see the children walk”. The writer of the article thinks that this " walking " may have been but a survival of a much older custom — that of “beating the bounds " — which prevailed in many parishes at Rogation-tide ; and that “May Sunday” occurring near the same time of the year the one custom had at the end of the eighteenth century merged into the other. As we have seen, the custom of “walking” still continues, but only to a very limited extent."