May Poles and Dances
The Maypole is a symbol with many meanings. Often celebrated as and considered a phallic symbol, it also resembles the garlanded trees associated with moon goddesses. In the Phrygian rites of Attis, celebrated around the spring equinox, a fir tree was chopped down, wrapped in a shroud and placed in a tomb. Resurrected three days later, it was decorated and danced around. In some places, May Day ceremonies took place beneath a sacred tree, which was not uprooted. These trees represented the world-tree, the axis between heaven and earth.
In Italy, May Day was celebrated by tying lemons and ribbons around flowering branches and bringing male and female trees to be married in the piazza, according to Carol Field in Celebrating Italy. Field reports that men in Tuscany and young women in Piedmont sing in May with rhyming songs called maggiolate. In Assisi, two sections of the city compete by singing love songs, a custom which she traces back to the Celtic Campi de Maggio, battlefields of May, the time when the weather was nice enough for war again (or perhaps an early version of a tournament). Some scholars believe that the love poetry of the troubadours originated in the love poems associated with May Day. The Welsh medieval poets loved to write long poems rhapsodizing about spending May in a green bower with a lovely lass.
The Maypole dance is a round dance of alternating male and female dancers, weaving in and out in a maze movement, plaiting ribbons as they go. Maypole dances fulfilled social and sacred functions. They helped people flirt and mingle socially. They also raised energy in a patterned and focused way.
In England, May Day was also an occasion for Morris dancing and mummer’s plays. Scholars have speculated that the exaggerated leaps of the Morris dancers serve as charms to show the crops how high to grow (similar dances are reported from early Roman times) and the clashing of their sticks may represent a ritual battle between summer and winter. The mummer’s plays feature odd character including Green (or St) George, a hobbyhorse (or dragon), a male/female, a teaser, a jester and chimney sweep with their brushes. Sometimes the hobbyhorse has coal under his skirts and he tries to trap young women under them. Only those who are marked with coal can dance around the maypole. Sometimes the play portrays a battle between summer and winter. Summer squirts winter with water and seize the garland from winter and present it to the May Queen.