by Heather Elvidge
May, with its sudden greening and lengthening days, throws open the gateway to summer. And we feel the fever, even with our sedentary, indoor life.
To help things along, we’re not above trying a bit of sympathetic magic – polishing up the barbecue, or wearing summer clothes even though it’s perishing.
Our ancestors felt it too. What is a maypole, but a symptom of spring fever? From the fifteenth century the sourcing of a tree to be turned into a maypole was an important event in town and country. Painted in stripes and hung with greenery and bunting, the maypole became a symbol of community pride.
It could also arouse strong passions. In what became a tradition, rival villages sent out raiding parties to cut down or steal each other’s maypole. The resentments this caused often took years to resolve and injury, even murder, wasn’t unknown.
Forget children dressed in white, tangling themselves up in long ribbons – maypole dancing was an activity for young men and women. They danced in a ring while holding hands, or formed lines to weave in and out as they progressed around the maypole. Spectators enjoyed the music, food and drink.
So until the nineteenth century no English maypole had long ribbons; this was a feature of European maypoles. Then during the Victorian re-invention of May Day, children were taught maypole dancing, Euro-style.
This introduction had two consequences. The maypole dance became a children’s custom, and by the end of the century the English style of dancing had been replaced by ribbon weaving.
Barwick’s big day
At the month’s end many maypoles were taken down, but some – usually the biggest – became permanent local features. A famous maypole, claimed to be England’s tallest, still stands in the Yorkshire village of Barwick-in-Elmet.
Every third year Barwick’s maypole is taken down for refurbishment: 2014 is one of those years. Villagers have been repainting the 86ft pole and making four large garlands, each of which needs 1,500 rosettes, all made by hand.
Raising the maypole used to take place at Whitsuntide, but like many Whit customs it’s moved to the Late Spring Bank Holiday. On the morning of May 26 villagers will carry the huge, heavy pole to its traditional site, where it will be lifted into position using a crane. This used to be done by a hundred men using ropes and ladders, until health and safety concerns prevailed.
Barwick’s maypole is topped by a silver fox weathervane, the village’s emblem. It’s the custom for a young daredevil to shin up the pole, untie the guide ropes, and give the fox a spin. After that there’s a funfair, a street market, and the Maypole Queen’s procession.
No doubt the silver band will play “Barwick Green”, written in 1924 by Yorkshire composer Arthur Wood. He based the piece on a traditional maypole dance tune – today we know it as the theme tune to The Archers.
The Barwick maypollers aren’t the only ones hoping for a fine bank holiday. But how will the coming months turn out? Folklore offers us a clue on May 25. This is St Urban’s Day, when the weather is supposed to show the trend for summer.