The maypole has something of a tangled and uncertain history. Some evidence suggests that it started in Roman Britain some 2000 years ago as a spring ritual where soldiers danced around a decorated tree to thank the goddess Flora (the goddess of flowers). However the maypole is also associated with Beltane, Pagen rituals and fertility rites. What we do know is that these early maypoles didn’t have ribbons and were ostensibly a tall, stripped decorated tree which provided a focal point to village dancing – most likely circular dances performed by the adults of the villages.
The first time that we see the ribbons appear is in a painting of the Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea, London in 1759 which shows people plaiting ribbons around a pole in the manner which is generally thought of as a maypole dance today.
The maypole dancing we visualise now stems very much from the mind of a man called John Ruskin who was a Victorian writer and philanthropist. John Ruskin was among those who looked to the old customs which had held rural village societies together as something desirable to be continued in the emerging age. Ruskin was a patron of a teacher-training college in Roehampton and it was here that he established a May Day ceremony in 1881.
Then Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, Ruskin believed that industrialisation had robbed workers of individuality, joy and beauty. His answer was to encourage the student teachers at Whitelands to develop “natural and uncontending worth”. Dancing around a maypole formed part of an elaborate ceremony, which included the crowning of a May Queen.
From Whitelands, women teachers took the new tradition wherever they went, and it quickly became standard in schools.
If you’d like to read a little more on the history of the maypole there are some wonderful articles online. I particularly liked this one: www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/news/how-maypole-dancing-became-english-tradition