Monthly Archives: May 2011

June Poles, May Day, and Trailing Arbutus

On a whim, which is how I do a lot of things, I “liked” a Facebook group called the Maypole of Merrymount. Swedes, including Bemidji area residents of Swedish descent, put up what is called a majstång, or sometimes a midsommarstång, close to the day of the summer solstice. In church year terms, this is the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, but the celebration is for both Christians and pagans. I don’t know why they don’t call it a June pole but they don’t.

The Maypole of Merrymount was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had changed his name from Hathorne, perhaps because he was ashamed of his Puritan ancestors, one of whom was the presiding judge at the Salem witchcraft trials. In this story, based loosely on a real incident, merrymakers in costume are dancing around a pole on the occasion of the marriage of the Queen of the May. Puritans from a nearby settlement watch with disapproval. They don’t like mumming or masking, or the idea of a priest officiating at a wedding. They address the officiant as the “priest of Baal”, cut down the maypole, whip some of the participants and put others in stocks.

The true incident which inspired this story took place on May Day (May 1), but in the narrative it is June 23, the summer solstice and the feast of Saint John the Baptist. The Puritans didn’t like either celebration and for a time put a stop to Christmas.

My church observed May Day this year, and although I can’t comment on the particulars because I didn’t attend the party, I saw the pole sitting in the fellowship hall. It was the kind with streamers. May Day is another of those celebrations, the origins of which have been lost to history. It comes halfway between spring and midsummer. In Christian terms it is the Feast of St. Philip and St. James. Some scholars say the maypole is a phallic symbol and the feminine principal is represented by flowers and baskets.

My parents observed May Day by making baskets and leaving them anonymously on neighbors’ doorsteps. On my dad’s side of the family they went on field trips in search of the trailing arbutus, a flower I have seen only once in my life.

May Day is also celebrated as a commemoration of the achievements of the labor movement for social and economic justice. The date was chosen to coincide with the 1886 Haymarket massacre in Chicago in which strikers and police officers were killed. Mayday, repeated three times, is also a radio distress signal call, recognized internationally.