The May Pole

Another custom of Bealtaine which has never died out is that of the May Pole. In many places in Britain, Ireland, and North America, children are still encouraged to grab the white and red ribbons and dance the old Mor- ris Dances.

In the days of the old ways, the May Pole was made from the communal pine tree which had been decorated at Yule, with all but its uppermost branches now removed. The ribbons attached to its top are traditionally white and red, white for the Goddess and red for the God, or white for the Virgin Goddess and red for the Mother. The May Pole is a phallic symbol impregnating the birth canal being woven around it by the dancers. There are two thoughts on the symbology for the white and red streamers. One is that the red stands for the Sun God and the white for the Virgin Goddess.

The men, holding the red streamers, and the women the white, weave the birth canal together, representing the union of Goddess and God. The other is that the white, held by the women, stands for the Virgin Goddess, and the red, held by the men, stands for the mother aspect. Together the men help the virgin aspect meld herself into motherhood on the phallic pole. The dancers then do a Morris Dance, the Anglo name for May Day dances, which are rich with pagan symbolism. There are usually eight dancers one for each Sabbat of the year paired into four couples. The dances involve moving in circles and weaving under each other's inter- locked, upheld arms in mock sexual unions.

It is not difficult, even in modern North America, to find such a cele- bration going on at May Day. My Indiana elemen^ry school celebrated May Day every year under the label "Health Day," with festivities culminating in a May Pole dance in the school gym. While this may at first seem incongruous, it is not. Healing rituals were very much a part of the old Bealtaine observances. Slainte, an Irish word used to toast one's health, was a time-honored Bealtaine tradition. In Cornwall individuals would make Bealtaine pilgrimages to the standing stones known as Men-an-Tol to pass themselves through to be healed.

If you wish to wrap a May Pole of your own, you will need a tall object to act as a center pole, such as a branchless tree or a flag pole. If you have neither of these available to you. you might be able to buy a large wooden beam at a hardware store or a demolition site. In any case, the pole needs to be at least ten feet tall. (You can hang your ribbons at that height even if the pole you have is significantly higher.) You will also need long lengths of ribbon or cloth about two to three inches wide and at least six feet longer than the length of your pole so you have room to work with them. For example, if you have a ten-foot pole, each ribbon will need to be sixteen feet long. Ask at a fabric or craft store for the type of ribbon or cloth you need. You will also need at least seven other dancers, though having more is fine, and bells for your heels. Celtic, Breton, or English folk music is the best choice, but American square dance music is a good substitute.

Hang your evenly-spaced ribbons, alternating red and white, at the ten- foot high point on your pole. You can tack them up any way you like. Use nails, glue, or tie them to a wreath which slips down over the pole. Drape them downward so they flow out at even intervals from your pole.

When you are ready to begin the dance, turn on your music and have the women take the white ribbons and the men take the red, and each stand facing their partner. The women will stand with their right sides to the pole, ribbon in their right hands, and the men will be standing with their left to the pole, the ribbon in their left hands. Begin weaving the symbolic birth canal by having everyone move forward from where they stand, moving alternately over and under the person coming toward them. It is tradition to start with the men moving their ribbon and selves under the upheld ribbon of the women. Proceed in this fashion uniti the May Pole is wrapped about eighteen inches down. As you move to the music, make your steps a cross between a skip and a jog so that the bells on your heels hit the ground with enough force to mark off the beats of the music.

Many old folk song lyrics that proclaim the praises of this glorious Sab- bat survive from remote parts of Britain. Many of them have become shrouded in arcane language over time, either deliberately or by accident, while others are remarkably straight forward. The following is an example of this music, the joyful lyrics of an old song from Cornwall. It is entitled simply, "A May Day Carol." Though the sentiments have been somewhat Christianized, they still reflect the themes of courtship, fresh flowering, honey ale and dairy foods, and making merry, for which Bealtaine is noted.

AWAKE, AWAKE, MY PRETTY PRITHY MAID,
COME OUT YOUR DROWSY DREAM,
AND STEP INTO YOUR DAIRY HOLD,
AND FETCH ME A BOWL OF CREAM.
IF NOT A BOWL OF CREAM, MY DEAR,
A CUP OF MEADE TO CHEER,
FOR THE lord KNOWS WE SHALL MEET AGAIN,
TO GO maying ANOTHER YEAR.
A BRANCH OF may I BROUGHT YOU HERE,
WHILE AT YOUR KEEP I STAND,
'TIS BUT A SPROUT ALL BUDDED OUT,
BY THE POWER OF OUR lord's HAND
. MY SONG IS DONE AND I MUST BE GONE,
NO LONGER MAY I STAY,
GOD BLESS YOU ALL, THE GREAT AND SMALL,
AND SEND YOU A JOYOUS MAY.

Finding the lyrics of folk music with their pagan meanings still intact is an exciting pastime for many pagan people, and a rewarding one since it is easy to do. As the established Church (either the Roman or the Anglican, depending upon location) became the ruling presence in the cities and towns of Europe, paganism was left to the countryside vvhere often the custom-killing hand of clerical power did not reach. For many centuries the farmers and rural folk continued to live by and with the cycles of the sacred seasons, and it was they who preseved folk songs for us through their oral traditions. Much of the folk music whose origins can be traced to at least the sixteenth or seventeenth century often hints at this division of religious life.

One of the most glaring examples of this is the British folk song, "The Oak and The Ash," which honors three of the sacred trees of the Celtic people, the oak, ash, and ivy. The song tells of a north country girl (most likely meaning she is from Yorkshire) who has gone to London and misses her homeland with all its attendant customs. The chorus of the song is: "... Oh, the oak and the ash and bonnie ivy tree / They flourish at home in my own country."