The image of country folk dancing around a painted pole on May Day is a popular scene of traditional country life in England. Books on British folklore offer various theories about the origin of the Maypole: a phallic symbol of pre-Christian fertility rituals, a tradition inherited from Celtic tree worship, or a much more recent custom, no more than 700 or 800 years old.
The Celtic origins theory
Reader's Digest's "Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britain" says the maypole, like the other elements of May Day festivities, dates back to pre-Christian fertility rites that marked Beltane, the Celtic festival celebrating the start of summer. In this theory, the garlanded maypole is a stand-in for a sacred tree, such as the white hawthorn.
The mediaeval origins theory
The authors of Oxford University's "A Dictionary of British Folklore" say there is no evidence the custom dates back to the times when Britain was populated by the Celts or that it represents a phallic symbol. "A Dictionary of British Folklore" says the earliest records of maypoles date back to the 14th century, so it's unlikely maypoles were in use much earlier than that. The Celtic and mediaeval theories both have supporters among folklorists.
The 15th cCentury
"A Dictionary of English Folklore" says references to maypoles become common starting in the 15th century. During this period, communities would hang garlands on greenery on the maypole, then dance around it, with the dancers sometimes kissing when they met. Some communities made finding and decorating the maypole for May Day a major annual ritual; other, such as the Cornhill neighbourhood of London, had permanent maypoles. Many of the written accounts of maypoles come from moralists who disapproved of the partying and festivities that went on during May Day.
Maypole supporters and opponents
While King James I and Charles I both endorsed maypoles as a legitimate pastime, the clergy frowned on them and in the 17th century, local authorities banned them in many communities. When the Roundheads won the English Civil War and had Charles beheaded in 1649, they had the maypole banned. When Charles II regained the throne in 1660, maypoles came back into favour as a nostalgic symbol of old-fashioned fun.
By the 19th century, there were few maypoles still standing. "A Dictionary of British Folklore" says the Victorians, nostalgic for "merrie olde England," revived the tradition. Unlike the 15th century revellers, the Victorians not only danced but plaited ribbons around the pole as they went. Sometimes the dances were quite elaborately choreographed.
If you're travelling
"Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britian" says tourists can find an 26 m (86 foot) maypole, the oldest in England, in Barwick in Elmet, where every three years the community makes a major event of lowering the pole, then raising it again for the May Day celebration. Ceremonies at Ickwell Green in Bedfordshire are probably 400 years old, and include people dressed up as "moggies" in strange costumes collecting money from the crowds.