Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.
A Celebration of Communism in the USSR
I learned about maypoles and maypole dances in Russian class during the spring of the 7th grade. The class was taught by a native Ukrainian woman and a native Northern Russian man and both were interesting.
We young students received both the rural and urban Soviet perspectives on the holiday of May Day. The rural versions included longer periods of dancing and the giving of May baskets filled with flowers, sweet cakes, and small gifts. The urban version was short and simple: a few dances and songs.
These lessons occurred during the Cold War (1945-1991) when many Americans were unhappy with Russia.
American Army General George Patton began complaining about the Soviet threat around 1943, starting a media conflict after he told everyone who would listen to his opinion. I was fortunate to have teachers who had heard him firsthand and I heard that he expressed himself too loudly for political comfort in the USA and the USSR. By 2018, many people had decided that he was right after all.
Law and Loyalty Day in America
In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as both Law Day and Loyalty Day. He did this to counteract the USSR and socialist countries that celebrated non-democratic governments with their official May Day activities and themes.
In 1955, the Catholic church via Pope Pius XII dedicated the day to St. Joseph the Worker (the human father of Jesus Christ), to bring religious significance to May Day.
The Law Day 2020 theme is “Your Vote, Your Voice, Our Democracy: The 19th Amendment at 100.”
— American Bar Association
Socialism in Chicago, 1886
May Day (May 1) became the Socialist holiday known as International Workers' Day in commemoration of the May 4, 1886 Haymarket killings in Chicago, Illinois.
The workers' day is now celebrated around the world in dozens of countries, including much of Central and South America, Canada, and the USA as well as overseas nations.
Tired of working long hours in 1886, the workers of Chicago protested by striking for an 8-hour workday. As the result of a worker-thrown bomb, police officers shot and killed four of the protesters. This created an uproar of sentiment that demanded recognition of those dead workers with a special day.
Various events around the world added to the interest of May 1st as a worker's day for recognition, but May 1 became a much-celebrated day for different reasons globally.
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German communities often celebrate May Day as the day St. Walpurga brought Christianity to the land, but some groups celebrate the night of April 30-May 1 as a night of witches' meetings. In either case, maypoles are often adorned with evergreen trees over a green wreath at the top, to honor spring and new life.
The Catholic church in many places around the world offers recognition to the Virgin Mary on May 1, without the maypole.
The maypole seems to be used most often in Germany and nearby, mostly European countries and by socialist and communist nations.
German Courting Ceremony
In German communities, it is also a tradition that a young man interested in a young woman has a maypole delivered to her front lawn in the middle of the night and set up for May Day dancing.
The fourth-grade children (ages 9 and 10) in the video below are quite good at making patterns in the woven ribbons and unwinding them again!
Maypoles Represent Diverse Meanings
The first meaning I learned of the maypole was the celebration of Communism on the Soviet holiday May Day, which had been a long-standing holiday in folk communities in Australia, England, Germany (with an evergreen tree at the top), Sweden, and other European nations.
Before Soviet Communism, a happy pagan celebration of life and nature in Spring or Summer used the maypole and still uses it in many communities.
The pagan maypole celebration is likely more recognized by US residents than is the Soviet version. We have seen the "pole dancing" to celebrate nature in cartoons since before the time of Walt Disney and Walter Lance. The depictions were all positive, as I remember. Some elementary schools in the US have students build and use a smaller version of a maypole in the spring, as a history lesson.
Girls wearing ribbons and flowers in their hair dance a traditional dance, while winding long ribbons around a tall pole in a type of braid, until the ribbons are taken up entirely. Then a party can occur. One version of the dance looks much like the old children's dance done to the song "In and Out the Window." Many American groups dance the maypole dance without any recognition of pagan or Christian belief, but they seem to acknowledge the renewal of nature in Spring.
Pagan traditions of the maypole seem to date back centuries among numerous ancient groups, but the groups all seem to include a reverence for nature and the changing seasons of the year, especially springtime. Some authorities think that the maypole is a symbolic phallus and well, emphasizing reproduction and new birth in springtime.
Military Parades and Maypoles
On May Day in Moscow, we know that the custom from the beginning of the USSR was to parade all the military might of the Soviets through Red Square for the workers and the elite to view - there were but two classes. The people watched tanks, cannons, missiles, and related armaments drive through the street, along with soldiers and Soviet youth groups. Women and girls in traditional clothing danced around maypoles at the end of the show.
Faith-based activities were outlawed in the October Revolution of 1917, so a non-religious maypole was brought out, stripped of pagan religion as well, and used to promote the Glorious Motherland or Fatherland of the workers for International Workers' Day.
Soviet girls and women in traditional skirts, embroidered blouses, and beribboned hair would dance around the pole while holding ribbons attached to the top end of it. They would move around the pole, in and out of other dancers' ribbons, to form a braid around the pole. When the ribbons were used up in this way, the dance ended. There was not much else done in the way of public celebration.
The Cornwall Maypole in Padstow Town
The maypole used in Padstow, Cornwall is huge and elaborate and the May Day holiday entails much more than it does in some other communities.
Cornwall's celebrations are part of the May Day holiday's 'Obby 'Oss Festival, in which two teams, the red and the blue or the Old and the Blue Ribbon, compete in a contest of two men dressed as stylized hobby horses with horse masks and black capes added. This festival is almost like a dispute between political parties, without the yelling and cursing.
The townspeople gather at midnight on May Day to sing and spend the night decorating their hometown in evergreen boughs and flowers. Besides Padstow, at least three or four other nearby towns celebrate these traditions.
In the morning, the horse contest includes catching women under the hobby horses' black capes and each man-horse leading a good parade of followers, many of whom wear blue or red neckerchiefs.
Another traditional song is sung during the day's events and a party is held. Some historians think that the hobby horse traditions are Celtic in origin, but others think the townspeople just came up with something different for May Day around 1800. It's fun, regardless of the origin.
The Annual Maypole May Mean Many Things
- Symbol of a fun song and dance,
- Symbol of spring
- Symbol for fertility and reproduction
- Symbol of Communism and Socialism
- Symbol of law and loyalty,
- Symbol of St. Joseph, human father of Christ, and of the Virgin Mary
The hobby horse for May Day below in Chipping Campden is very colorful. The Cornwall variety uses a smaller headpiece or mask and a more voluminous black cape. Really, in Cornwall, the cape looks like a large trash bag.
- Griffin, E. M. Dancing Around the Maypole, Ripping Up the Flag: The Merry Mount Caper and Issues in American History and Art. Renascence 57:3; pp 177-202; 2005.
- Hewson, C. Celebrate May Day. Practical Pre-School Vol. 2019, No. Sup219; April 13, 2019.
- Johnson, B. May Day Celebrations - Historic UK.
- Kennedy, D. The Folkdance Revival in England. Vol. 2, International Festival Number, pp. 72-79.
- Rothman, L. The Bloody Story of How May Day Became a Holiday for Workers; Time; May 1, 2017.
- MacMillan Dictionary Blog. What is a Maypole?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Patty Inglish MS
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on July 10, 2015:
@MG Seltzer - Thanks for visiting and I hope you enjoy the article!
MG Seltzer from South Portland, Maine on July 10, 2015:
I've bookmarked th to enjoy reading at a leisurely pace this weekend. It looks fascinating! Great photos too.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on May 01, 2015:
@lawrence01 - Thanks for commenting. If I had not taken the Russian class, I might never have known that part of May Day celebrations.
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on April 30, 2015:
Fascinating. I knee the maypole was medieval in England and maybe as far back as the druids but not about the other stuff here
Awesome hub really well researched
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 29, 2015:
@MsDora - Glad you had a good time on this Hub!
@mcbirdbks - Our Sat. morning cartoons in the 60s and 70s included one or two old black and white cartoons in each show and I saw the maypole dance in them and just thought it was a party -- until I got into Russian class. Bit of a shock, really.
mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on April 29, 2015:
Hi Patty, This is filled with fun facts. Another well thought out and presented article. I seem to remember a Maypole dance.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 28, 2015:
So much history and versatility in the background of the May Day celebrations. All very interesting as is the Maypole dance in the video. Thanks for the information and the entertainment.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 27, 2015:
@Rochelle Frank - Hello, Rochelle; I hope you are well. I guess I never saw a maypole outside of cartoons, except on the news when I was about 10 or so and a little later in a Russian festival in town. You're probably right about most schools not using them.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 27, 2015:
@bravewarrior - I suppose in the Catholic schools, the maypole as a bit of fun for the kids, but as a requirement, it sounds like it had some sore of deeper meaning. Maybe the meaning was participation and obeying teachers, or maybe part of remembering St. Joseph, or part of co-opting something from the Communists and making it American -- It's hard for me to tell and I'd prefer it to be just fun! :)
I am reminded of the fruit-eating campaign by USA in the 1950s - 1060s to sell more bananas - it had the slogan "The Kremlin Hates Bananas!"
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on April 27, 2015:
Very interesting. I never knew about maypole celebrations until now.
Anne Harrison from Australia on April 26, 2015:
An excellently researched article - and I love the photos. I've never been exposed to maypole dancing and festivities, so thank you for enlightening me. Voted up
Jyoti Kothari from Jaipur on April 26, 2015:
You write so good that nothing to repeat in every article. Its descriptive, full of info and added with class pictures. Rated up and beautiful.
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on April 26, 2015:
Very interesting compilation of the May Day traditions. I can remember when I was about 5, going to a May Day event at my sister's school. They had a very tall pole, and the did the dance, weaving the ribbons and braiding them around the pole.
I would suppose this would never be done today in a public school. Too many people would have too many reasons to complain about some imagined political or religious agenda.
At my young age I thought it was pretty neat and was impressed, though not at all sure what it was all about. I don't think any one else knew, either.
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 26, 2015:
Thank you for this, Patty. We did the Maypole thing in Catholic school in Philly back in the '60s and '70s, although I never knew why. It was fun and something we were obligated to participate in. I still don't know why Catholics did this, nor do I know if it's still practiced today. I know you touched briefly on it becoming a Christian ritual, but I think there's a lot more history as to why.