Welcome to my World: What is a May Pole Dance?

My oldest sister, Anita, told me, “I used to go to Kutztown to see the May Pole dances. They were really nice.” It never occurred to me to ask more questions, but recently I decided to find out more about these dances.

The Kutztown Patriot, listed a few of them. One, on May 25, 1944, mentions it was held at Schaeffer Auditorium at Kutztown State College, and stated “…crowning of the May Queen, Eleanor Miller. The May Pole dance was perfectly executed, the dancers not only winding but unwinding gaily colored streamers, a feat rarely accomplished.”

A May Pole itself is a tall pole, standing in sturdy cement blocks (similar to support for a Christmas tree) to hold it in place. It is often decorated with flowers. Streamers or ribbons hang from the pole at different levels. Young girls, arranged in circles around the pole, hold onto a ribbon while intertwining and braiding, and then unraveling as they perform a circle dance. Most dances are held outside on the town center, a town park, but they can be held in a building as well.

The origin of May Day celebrations have pagan origins. The pagan Druids, of the British Isles, on May first, celebrated springtime fertility rites, called Beltane. Trees were always a part of pagan celebrations of the fertility of nature and used in spring festivals.

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By the Middle Ages, every English village enjoyed May Day celebrations involving a May Pole. Villagers would go into the forest, cut and strip a tree, and set it up on the village green. This May Pole was decorated with flowers and ribbons. The day included dancing around the May Pole, which was clad in flowers and streamers. A May Queen was chosen, and May baskets adorned the front door of the villages.

When the Romans occupied the British Isles, they eventually combined their festival of Flora, goddess of flowers, with the Beltane festival. The German festival of Walpurgis (rites to protect oneself against witchcraft) also coincided with the Beltane festival.

May Day festivities has become an official holiday worldwide, although celebrated in different forms.

Yet, the May 1st celebrations didn’t become a prominent holiday in the U.S. for several reasons. 19th century workers culminated their labor strikes into the Interanational Worker’s Day and Labor Day, on May 1, 1886. The rural spring festivals of May Day became diminished as Americans became more and more urbanized. Also, by 1919, the Soviet Union made May 1st their International Day of Worker’s Solidarity (now called Celebration of Spring and Labor).

President Grover Cleveland, after the Pullman strike, in 1894, officially moved Labor Day to the 1st Monday in September. In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, President Eisenhower designated May 1st as “Law Day.” Americans eventually became less inclined to acknowledge anything on May 1st.

As far as I’m concerned, I can’t see why my sister, Anita, at 4 years old, didn’t take me to see the May Pole dance in the 40s. After all, I was a well-behaved child! Maybe I’ll get to see one in the future in our very own Kutztown Park.