A Look Back at Folk School May Day Celebrations

Wishing you a happy May Day! We’re looking forward to dancing around the May Pole together again, but until then, we put together this post filled with photos of years past, a video from 2011, and an excerpt by Nanette Davidson about May Day from The Folk School Cookbook. Enjoy!

About the Folk School May Day Tradition by Nanette Davidson from The Folk School Cookbook

When winter fades and the trees and shrubs burst into glorious bloom, the Folk School tractor lumbers out of the shed and is given a circular turn to mow around the Maypole field. For the last dozen years or more it’s been Jan or John Clarke who climbs to the top of the twenty-foot pole and wedges there a wooden ring holding many pairs of colorful ribbons. As he lets each ribbon drop to the ground, the inevitable wind tangles them up faster than we can put them in the hands of eager children and “grown-ups,” ready to weave them around the pole to the sound of the fiddle, accordion, and banjo.

May Day celebrations and maypole dancing go way back in Celtic history. Often a live tree was cut in the forest early one May morning and erected in the town square. The ensuing dance was a way to plead for a fruitful harvest and it was also an excuse to frolic in the fresh sunshine, one we still consider valid in rural Appalachia. During Victorian England, about the time that Olive Campbell was a lovely young woman, the originally pagan rite of spring was transformed into a celebration of maidens and virtue that spread across the pond to college campuses of women’s schools in the United States. Young women would dress in white and promenade the grounds. They would have tea and elect a queen of May.

I wanted to reintroduce Maypole dancing to the Folk School at a time when our garland team, Rural Felicity, had many young daughters participating. We were a ready group of women of all ages and we already had some white dresses. As those young girls grew up and moved on we invited new young dancers from the community to keep the tradition alive. Some brought their parents too. Now we gather up all of our Morris dancers, band, and ribbon bearers to parade through campus on the first Saturday of May. We stop in the Community Room, recite a verse, sing a song, and then invite all the dancers and students on campus to follow us down to the Maypole ground where a good time is had by all. Unless it rains. If it does, we do it indoors because we also have a portable Maypole, just in case.

(Davidson, Nanette. The Folk School Cookbook, 2018, p. 80)

Pick up your own copy of The Folk School Cookbook.