We just hosted a May Day celebration, and this was one of the young adult participant’s first experience with a maypole! That was so sad, when I recall the regular maypole dances we had as children in the public schools in the early 1960’s. So to help spread the dancing o’ the Maypole, here are some instructions on how to make one.
We started by cutting down a leaning (therefore going to blow down soon) pine tree. Traditionally only certain trees were used, but any straight and strong tree will work. We checked to make sure the trunk was solid, and trimmed the limbs, top, and bottom of the pine off to end up with a pole 16′ long.
We dug a hole with a post hole digger, and made the hole about 4″ wider than the pole to allow clearance and for fill dirt. Our hole (in sand and sandy clay) was 3 feet deep. (Easy digging here.)
Opinions vary about the length of ribbon needed for a maypole; 1.5 to 2 times the height of your pole out of the ground is a good range. The more people you have, the longer your ribbon will need to be. (We had 12′ to the ring where our ribbons tied off and a handful of dancers so our 18′ of ribbon was just right.) You can use ribbon as narrow as 7/8″, but really a 1-2′ ribbon is best. (In the photos below the yellow ribbon is less than 1″, the purple ribbon is 1″, and the rest are 1.5″ wide. The wider ribbon was easier to see, didn’t blow around as much, and was easier to hold. I ordered long spools of ribbon online for a fraction of the price per yard that you can find in stores.)
You don’t have to put a wreath on top of the pole, but we did. Our wreath was made from grape vines (all over here), silk flowers (cut from cheap silk flower bouquets from a ‘dollar’ store), and twine tied at 4-5 spots along the wreath to keep it all together. (We used silk flowers as real ones would wilt in our hot spring temperatures. And the flowers are going to be way up in the air and not clearly visible. Ribbons on the wreath would look nice too.) You tie two strings of heavy twine (or similar) to suspend the wreath from the top (narrower end) of the pole. Then attach the strings to the top of the pole; we used construction staples (from a construction staple gun) where the two strings criss-crossed. (Make sure you attach at the center of the strings so the wreath will hang evenly.)
You’ll need a ring of some sort to tie everyone’s dance ribbons onto. We used a length of moderately stiff wire and had people tie their ribbons onto it, then propped up the pole slightly off the ground, and bent the wire into a circle around the pole at about a foot from the top. (We went for having the hanging wreath and fixed ribbon ring being about the same distance from the top of the pole -about 1 foot). In the photo above you can see the wreath is already attached to the pole, and the ribbons are on a green wire which has a loop at one end. Then you cinch the wire through the loop, twist, and trim any excess wire. Our wire ring ended up being about 5″ across for our pole. [Note: If you use a smooth ring (like our wire ring) it will be easy to pull the ribbons into place before the maypole dance starts.]
Then tilt the the pole all the way up, putting the wider end of the pole in the hole you dug. (Best to have more than one person do this if your pole tree has heavy wood.) Check it to see if the pole looks plum and is sturdy/deep enough, and add dirt back into the hole and tamp it down. (We used a shovel to put the dirt back, and a stick to help tamp it down.) Our 16 ‘ pole is now sticking out of the ground 13′, with the wreath and ribbons up at the 12’ level. [Note: if you wait to put on a wreath until the pole is already up then you are hoisting someone small on top of someone tall to place the wreath, or using a ladder. We thought our way was easier and safer.)
We used a standard dance with an even number of dancers, each holding their ribbon all the way out from the pole. Every other dancer moves clockwise (with the sun) and the other half moves counter-clockwise (against the sun). The clockwise folks start with ribbons up, and the counter-clockwise folks with ribbons down (or vice versa, as long as everyone in a direction starts the same way). After you pass your first person coming in the opposite direction you move your ribbon to the next position. So you end up with 2 rings of people going two directions, and going over and then under people with your ribbons. When you have enough people it can make a very nice woven pattern on the pole. But if someone breaks the pattern it makes the dance fun, and the ribbons still look nice on the pole. We had recorded music that started at a nice walking pace and then got faster- which is what will happen as your ribbons get shorter during your dance!
At some point you’ll all be happily running into each other, and you’ll be out of ribbon. You can tie off the ribbons at the bottom of the pole and step back and admire what was created!
This is just the way we made this maypole- try out your own methods. Dancing a maypole is a spring activity in many cultures, it’s easy to do, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Enjoy a-Maying!
For more on Beltane/May Day celebrations go here.