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It's Beltane! Raise the maypole! Weave the pretty ribbons! Collapse in exhaustion, pig out at the potluck, and go home knowing you've participated in a life-affirming, ancient European Pagan tradition. Simple. Effective. Fun for all ages.
Well, the maypole is effective and fun, but apparently it's not so simple. I asked some of my nearest and dearest in the Pagan community their biggest problem with the maypole. Here are the three answers I heard over and over again. I hope my suggested solutions will help your private group or local community next time you raise the ribboned staff!
Keeping the pole upright. This was the number one problem cited by my friends, and rightly so. Or, as Trystn put it: "Keeping the pole upright so it doesn't bean someone on the head, terrorize the dog, or knock over the altar."
The key, of course, is a solid maypole stand, a very deep hole, or a strong human (or two) to hold it up. There are pros and cons to each of these solutions.
If your Beltane celebration takes place on private or forest service (or other government land), you may not be allowed to dig a deep hole—and a fourteen-foot pole needs at least four of those feet to be firmly underground, preferably packed in with dirt and rocks. The hole also has to be well-marked so no one accidentally falls in and is seriously hurt. However, a maypole hole is cheap, i.e. free, stable (nothing's more stable than good, packed earth), and easy to undo—just fill in the hole!
Unfortunately, your average Christmas tree stand is a great maypole base in theory but doesn't work all that well in practice. An eight-foot pole (the minimum height, in my opinion) will easily topple from the tension of as little as ten people pulling on the ribbons attached to it. A better stand can be made from an old car wheel (with or without tire), some PVC pipe, a bag or two of cement, and green paint. Determine the diameter of your maypole, then find about twelve to fourteen inches of PVC pipe wide enough for your maypole to fit down into. Set the pipe in the middle of the car wheel, fill in with cement. When it's dry, paint it so it looks less like a car wheel full of PVC pipe and cement. You might also want to cover it with flowers or budding branches on the big day. Some people advocate sticking the bottom of the maypole into a five-gallon drum filled with wet cement three or four days before the ritual, but I like the lower, broader base that a car wheel provides.
Sometimes patio umbrella stands work well, if your group or community can afford a wide-based cast-iron stand.
Of course, a strong man or two can stand or sit and hold the maypole upright while everyone else dances around it. Again it's a cheap (free), effective solution. But be warned, and I say this from experience: If at all possible, find a human maypole stand who wants his fertile female partner to get pregnant! Better yet, find a couple who want to be parents, or want to be parents again, and have them hold the maypole together while everyone else dances around it. Speaking of dancing, that seems to be the second most common maypole problem.
No one here knows how to dance around a maypole. Let's start with the easy part—ribbons. Everyone will need a satin or grosgrain ribbon (found in most fabric departments and stores) that is (and this is the really important part): twice the length of the maypole. So if your fourteen foot maypole has four of those measured feet in the ground, the dancers need a twenty-foot ribbon to wrap around the ten feet of pole left over. Why satin or grosgrain? The paper ribbon you decorate your Yule presents with is too fragile, and will tear in a heartbeat. The fabric ribbon with wire running through the edges will make ugly bunchies in the weave. Nice, flat inexpensive ribbons can also be made from two-inch strips of cheap, pretty fabric.
Now that everyone has a long cloth ribbon affixed to the maypole, put the ribbon down for a minute and practice the weave motions. Once all the dancers are assembled in at least a motley circle-like formation around the pole, they need to count off, just like in gym class: one, two, one, two, one, two… Don't worry if you have an odd number. The weave will still work, it'll just have an odd bobble in it from time to time. Ones and twos face each other and extend right hands. Take your "partner's" hand, and gently pull by. Now extend your left hand to the next person and gently pull by again. Repeat all the way around the circle until every dancer is facing their original "partner." Now, pick up your ribbons and do the same thing without hands: pass right shoulders, pass left shoulders, pass right shoulders. Whoever is passing on the outside (and this changes with each new pass) needs to raise his or her ribbon a bit. Whoever is passing on the inside (again, this changes with each pass) needs to lower his or her ribbon and maybe even duck a little bit.
This can get tiring sooner than you may think, especially if there are little kids and/or a lot of adult dancers who have embraced their middle-aged spread. And there's always one person who is so far behind that half the dancers facing him are stuck standing there, waiting for him to get to them. Which, of course, leads to the next major problem:
Maintaining the energy. Because, as my friend Eva said, "it can take forever." The obvious solution is to incorporate music into the dance. I highly discourage you from asking the dancers to sing. One, they'll be out of breath after about ten minutes (and even an eight-foot pole can take the better part of half an hour to weave). Two, and trust me on this, they're all thinking right shoulder, left shoulder, right shoulder, ribbon up, ribbon down, ribbon up…and can't really be responsible for remembering all 75 gazillion verses of the Robin Hood ballad you tried to teach them an hour ago.
If your group or community is big enough, you'll probably have access to Pagan drummers and/or musicians. Live music is best; it lends an energy to the maypole dance that just can't be recreated with a CD boombox. I would, however, caution the musicians to keep the tempo even and slow.
However, if it's a choice between pre-recorded music and no music, my vote is for pre-recorded music. Some suggestions: instrumental Irish music like the Chieftans; English country dance tunes like Sellenger's Round, Gathering Peascods, and Hambleton's Round-O; any upbeat Pagan-themed music, with or without vocals.
If you have volunteer singers instead of musicians, or in addition to musicians, lucky you! Any folk or Pagan song or chant will work, just so it's not done super-fast or at funeral procession speed. Maybe they can sing all 75 gazillion verses of that Robin Hood ballad…
The two most important factors to remember when your group or community decides to have a maypole dance as part of your Beltane celebration are: have fun and have more fun! Maypole dancing has been and hopefully always will be a communal event, a time to get silly with your family, friends, and tribe and welcome in the spring. Happy weaving!
Bronwen Forbes co-founded Free Spirit Alliance and taught at various Pagan festivals, Pride Days, and conferences across the United States. She published fiction with Graveyard Publishing and two nonfiction books with ...