Who Were They?

Lost and forgotten photos from the past

No, not “mayday, mayday” this is May Day, both capitalized. In honor of the first of May, which is coming in a few days, let’s look at a lovely photo of young people prepared to dance around a May Pole. First – you knew this was coming – a little history. :-)

In Europe and the British Isles, May Day was traditionally celebrated with great gusto! The old religions recognized May 1st as a turning point of the year. Beltane was the celebration of new growth and yes, fertility. The crops were planted and they hoped for a bountiful harvest. The lengthening days of spring warmed the earth and signaled the coming of summer. When the Romans entered Europe and Britain, they celebrated at similar times of year and co-opted many established local holidays as their own. This happened with Beltane. They turned it into the festival Floralia, a three-day romp to honor the goddess Flora – goddess of flowers. Timing couldn’t have been more perfect, because May flowers are bright and beautiful pretty much wherever you are in the world. In many parts of England and Europe, May Day and maypoles, maypole dances and festivals continue to this day.

America was founded by Puritans, which was a huge bummer if you weren’t as strict as the colony leaders were. May Day and all its rituals was frowned on as impure, not honoring God, nasty. There is some speculation that the maypole and its dances were tied to fertility rites. (Come on, a bunch of young men and women dancing around a big pole sticking up out of the ground? No way is that phallic!) So the Puritans did everything they could to discourage May Day celebrations. There is a citation from 1628 when Plymouth governor William Bradford wrote scathingly about some indentured servants who broke their service agreements and started a new colony. Those people dared to set up a maypole and dance around it. By the way, this little colony of brash servants was called Mount Wollaston but the dancers changed the name to Merry Mount. It exists to this day, now known as a little burgh called Quincy, MA. Two early presidents of the US were from that town, and also a statesman you may have heard of….John Hancock.

So, in America we tend not to celebrate May Day with any sort of fanfare. I can remember making little bonnets and baskets of flowers for the elderly, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20s and visiting a Renaissance Fair that I saw an actual maypole. The photo above is anonymous, in that no one is named, not even a location noted on the back. The young women are all wearing nice dresses and each is holding the trailing end of a streamer attached at the top of the maypole. If there was music played, or even just if there was singing, the women would have danced a weaving dance around the pole, winding their streamers in and around one another.

In recent American film, a maypole is seen in the kingdom festival scene of the Disney movie Tangled, at which time Rapunzel and Flynn arrive in the kingdom and dance together.

This post is part of Sepia Saturday where the theme is generally maypoles, and be extension, May Day, dances, celebrations, etc. Click over to experience the virtual celebration of May Day, spring and the coming of summer.

Dance of the internet

20 thoughts on “May Day

  1. Wendy says:

    I’m glad you included history as my post was already too long to do so. I don’t ever recall any May Day celebration, but my great-aunt’s college yearbooks from the 20s contain several pages recounting the festivities on the college campus as does my mother’s from 1950.


  2. Little Nell says:

    I must admit that I never realsied that May Day was so big in America. I always thought it was a peculiarly English thing, but I’m learning fast, thanks to posts like yours. All the May Day dances have been different too. Thank you.


  3. Karen S. says:

    What an interesting post, and I just love learning more tidbits with everyone’s posts! It’s so surprising just how many celebrations there were!


  4. Christine says:

    As for the fertility aspect of the ritual, there is something very uh…interesting about virginal girls in white dresses wrapping themselves around this pole. I have never seen boys dancing around a maypole, have you?


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      The first maypole dance I ever saw was at that Renaissance Fair and yes it was male and female. It was also decidedly bawdy!


  5. Ed says:

    I only know what I remember as to May Day as a child in the 1960s living in a small poor town in New Hampshire. both boys and girls danced, or more accurately, walked around the maypole twisting up the long ribbon that had flowers hooked to them, the idea was to make the flag pole we used as a maypole to be covered with flowers top to bottom. We were little kids, it was done for the grand parents I guess, who would give instructions on wrapping the ribbons the right way. not a big deal, no ceremony really. afterwards was a small family BBQ . Don’t know about the virgins and fertility part, it was to us the start of spring and something the older people said they did as kids. It stopped for us when we moved and we didn’t have a flagpole to use as a maypole, I think the tradition just faded away. it was a quaint thing done by kids mostly under 10 in my memories


  6. tyrogers6200 says:

    Fertility and bountiful harvest, now that is something I didn’t know!


  7. Joyce says:

    This is very interesting to come across the meaning behind the May-Day festival. I happen upon this page after I saw a colorful picture of May-Pole already twisted together and a sign saying “Happy Beltane Day”, on a friend of a friend’s page on fb. I started to search the internet for this day I never heard of. I knew the picture right away was a May-Pole. It brought back great memories of growing up in Staten Island NY attending a strict public school PS44 in the 60’s. The month of May we had a May Day festival that came right after our Easter festival where we made Easter Hats and paraded with our hats on through-out the community.

    As a fifth grader I was picked to dance around the May-Pole that year. Now I that I had read up on the connections of this dance this have become very interesting. As Christine post above stated there were never boys who danced around this pole. At my school only older girls from the 5th and 6th grade were picked to wrap the May-Pole.We danced around it to music and had to wear white dresses. Most of the internet search I read was being tired to fertility rites. This makes me now wonder of our very strict, beloved by all the parents Principle Mr. Quinn, and what his meanings was behind it? As a child it was the best day of the year it marked the nearing of our 2 months summer school break in June.


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      Joyce, I do think there were many innocent observances of May Day and the maypole dance. The fertility rite was heavily pushed by the Wicca founder, forgot his name, in the 40s and 50s. Folk historians would say that anything from a candle to a tree could be phallic, so I always treat these theories with a grain of salt. Frankly, we weren’t there hundreds of years ago and unless there are writings that specifically state that it is/is not for a certain purpose, how can we really know anyway? :-)


  8. sheilaspostcards says:

    I agree with Little Nell, I had always thought of May Day as especially English. My eyes have been opened. :)


  9. postcardy says:

    I enjoyed readinge the history. I hadn’t heard of Beltane before.


  10. Bob Scotney says:

    It’s begging to sound like all things the British/English do – start something off and them watch others do it better! Thanks for the history, shows you are never too old to learn.


  11. Kathy M. says:

    A very nice photo and I enjoyed learning more about the history of May Day. I don’t think that I have ever danced around a May Pole myself…kind of missed out on that.

    Kathy M.


  12. An enjoyable post. Like others have said, I always thought it was predominately English.


  13. Joyce says:

    To reply to Mrs Marvel and postcardy
    You are so right Mrs. Marvel because there are so many theories on when? And why? And who founded May-Day and the pole dancing.

    To postcardy as Mrs Marvel stated and I later came across Beltane Day is of the-
    “Wiccans and Wiccan-inspired Neopagans celebrate a variation of Beltane as a Sabbat, one of the eight solar holidays. Although the holiday may use features of the Gaelic Bealtaine, such as the bonfire, it bears more relation to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans celebrate “High Beltaine” by enacting a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady.”

    But I feel this would make the most sense of May-Day and the pole dance-
    “The anthropologist Mircea Eliade theorizes that the maypoles were simply a part of the general rejoicing at the return of summer, and the growth of new vegetation. In this way, they bore similarities with the May Day garlands which were also a common festival practice in Britain and Ireland.”

    All in all its and interesting event that I’m happy I was a part of. I still remember that day very clear and the fun I had in wrapping that May-Pole.


  14. Joyce says:

    Mrs Marvel – My other post got to long but Thank-You for posting this very interesting post and I hope you didn’t mind me adding a little history I also found to share. It is truly hard to find pictures like the one you found of the girls around the May-Pole. I wish I had one of me at the time I wrapped the pole. Pictures like this are priceless.


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      These comments are so valuable, I enjoy reading what others may know about the photos and topics, so please post away! :-)


  15. Larry says:

    A great post. I have learned a lot about the holiday and I like the photo.


  16. hananadragon says:

    I’ve always celebrated the First of May by the Charles River in Cambridge, MA… Including the maypole, singing, and Morris dancing. I’ve never seen it at a Renaissance Fair, but then I haven’t been to many of those…
    Thanks for posting this, it’s really interesting and hopefully some people who wonder what the heck we’re doing at 5am in the rain will look it up and find out. xD


  17. I love this old photo! When I was little say about 8 or 9 (late 1950’s) I attended a wedding. It must have been on May Day. Little girls dressed in pastel dresses with long ribbons dances and wove their way around the Maypole..it was awesome and I have never forgotten it.
    I still do May Basket..and take them to the neighborhood kids..another old lost tradition:(


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