Happy May Day! For years, a tradition for Portland-area schools was to celebrate the arrival of spring with a Maypole dance. The first held at Kennedy Elementary School (now McMenamins Kennedy School) was in the spring of 1916, as part of the dedication ceremony for Kennedy’s new permanent school building. McMenamins revived the Maypole tradition at the renovated Kennedy School in 1999, after hearing recollections of it from many former students. Margaret Schneider Mead was a student at Kennedy in 1916 and danced around that first Maypole with her classmates. Then 83 years later, she joined the fun once again! May Day celebrations continued for many years at McMenamins Kennedy School.
Where does this curious tradition come from? The Maypole has been a part of spring celebrations since ancient times. Western European cultures in the UK, Ireland, Germany and Sweden had Maypole traditions predating the Middle Ages. From the Celtic holiday of Beltane to the Swedish festival of Midsommar, the Maypole was the centerpiece of the celebration. This pagan ritual of spring originally featured a tree decorated with flower garlands. Celebrating and feasting around the Maypole was thought to ensure an abundant growing season.
By the 17th century, puritanical leaders deemed the Maypole idolatry and superstitious heresy. Practically witchcraft! The Maypole was banned by Parliament in 1644, and forbidden in the North American colonies as well. The wicked Maypole was blamed for all the revelry, drinking and dancing. How dare they have fun!
In the late 1800s, the Maypole was embraced again, but it no longer held any religious meaning. The Victorians developed a nostalgia for old folk traditions and myths, which were in danger of being forgotten, due to a rapidly changing culture. The Maypole dance was popular once more, only this time as a children’s activity, associated with the innocence of spring. The choreographed dance with ribbons originated with communal folk dances from this era. Dancers held a ribbon and circled around the pole, skipping in opposite directions as they weaved a pattern of colorful ribbons. This painting by Guy Drennan reimagines that joyful scene. Discover even more fascinating artwork and historic photos at McMenamins Kennedy School.