It is not difficult, even in modern North America, to find such a
celebration going on at May Day.
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 feel tall. (you can hang your ribbons at the 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
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, 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 to 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 until 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 the glorious Sabbat
survived 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 budden out
by the power of our Lord’s hand.
My song is done and I must be gone,
No longer may I stary,
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 where often the
custom-killing hand of clerical power did not reach. For many centuries the
seasons, and it was they who preserved 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”.
Bealtaine circles were once constructed with the May Pole at the center and
a balefire at a distance, at one or all four of the cardinal points. The
altar was lavishly decorated with fertility symbols such as holy stones,
geodes, pine cones, flowers, and spring-time greenery. The rituals were
erotic in nature, symbolizing the union of the Goddess and God.