Well, it’s May. Where are the May Poles?
To be honest, I’ve never even seen one, much less danced around one as a child. I’ve had several people tell me what fun it was for them. Younger generations may ask, “what is a May pole?” The short answer is it is a tall wooden pole about which two groups of people dance around in a circle, sometimes unwinding streamers wrapped around and attached to the top of the pole. One group goes clockwise, and the other group skips counterclockwise, going under and over each other’s ribbons. I’m sure it takes some coordination. You can also just dance around it a circle, holding hands. In Europe the pole is often garlanded with flowers and greenery. Traditionally, May Pole dances would occur on May 1, or May Day, though we don’t adhere to such strict rules in the United States and pretty much do it anytime in May.
Yes, the May Pole’s origins are probably pagan. So are a lot of things we celebrate today and don’t think twice about. In the United States, the May Pole tradition was brought over from Great Britain, who may have borrowed it from the Germanic countries of Europe.
Locally, May pole dancing used to be popular in Neosho’s Big Spring Park, as part of bigger festivals. It was huge before World War II, then dropped off, then resumed again before disappearing again. To be exact, May Poles were incorporated into Neosho’s May Festival, which was really a school event. Here is an excerpt from the May 14, 1915, edition of the Neosho Daily Democrat:
“Today was certainly a “red letter day” for the schools of Neosho and Newton County. The forenoon was given over to the May Festival by the pupils of the High, Central, Field and Benton schools. The parade at 10 o'clock was one of the largest and most beautiful ever witnessed here. Probably 1,000 pupils and teachers were in line and the parade was almost a mile in length. About fifty young men with a mounted flag bearer and the Neosho Band headed the parade — followed in order by Heralds, Marshals, Seasons in Costume, 12 Months in Costumes, Birds from Benton, President of Girls Club with Crown and Scepter bearers, 4 Maids of Honor, Queen of May, Pages, 4 Maids of Honor, May Pole dancers, Dutch girls, Colonial dancers, everyone with flowers for tributes. The costumes, flowers and decorated autos were indeed beautiful. One of the prettiest sights of all was 100 little tots, both boys and girls, from 6 to 8 years of age. The program as announced was carried out at the City Park and a very large crowd was present. This included the crowning of the May Queen, Colonial Minuet and May Pole Dance, many songs, games, dances and drills.”
After what may have been a hiatus, a May Fete tradition continued throughout the1930s in Big Spring Park, with all the schools participating, and then stopped in 1941. It resumed in 1948 and the last one was held in 1951, according to the book “Here’s to the Black and Gold: A Wildcat History” by Larry James. Why the event stopped, I don’t know. Whether or not May Pole dancing ceased in Neosho or elsewhere altogether, I also don’t know. I’m sure it continued on a scattered basis here and there throughout Newton County, but the May Festivals, with May Poles at the center of the festivities, may not have happened past the early 1950s. Or did they? It’s something I need to look into. It is as simple as a series of trips to the local library to scan through the newspaper microfilm. Also, perhaps someone remembers May Festivals, with May Poles, in the 1950s or 1960s or beyond and has photographs. If so, let me know.
And I would still like to see a May Pole sometime.
Wes Franklin wirtes a weekly column for the Daily News.