Informant was a 19 year old female who was born in England and currently lives in Los Angeles. She lives in my hall, and I interviewed her.
Informant: There’s this festival that we have in England called May Day, and it’s the first of May. I don’t really know where it came from. We always have a holiday on the day so I always get a day off school. We do it to welcome spring, in a way. I’ve also heard that it’s to celebrate workers. But it’s not a workers’ day, per say. And I have seen people doing the Maypole dancing.
Collector: Pole dancing?
Informant: It’s not pole dancing as in pole dancing, like kids do it. I learned it at school, it’s taught at schools. At least it was when I was in primary school. Basically, it’s like a big wooden stick and it has like ribbons attached to it and people like dance around it.
Collector: Have you ever experienced that?
Informant: Yeah at like fairs I guess, on May day. There’s always a pole. I don’t really know the purpose of circling a pole to celebrate spring, but people do it. It’s very common. And there’s good food at the fairs too. Oh, and we crown a May Queen. That’s like a girl who does a bunch of things for May Day. Like she’s part of the parades and stuff. I’m not really involved in it, but I’ve heard about it. I also heard this story that in the past they used to kill the May Queen at the end, but like, I don’t know if that’s true or not.
The first thing I thought about this particular piece of folklore was how funny it was that a big tradition in England was called May Pole Dancing, but then my friend explained that it wasn’t really pole dancing, and that it is meant to celebrate spring. I think that’s really interesting, because it reminds me of my Swedish friend’s Midsummer ritual. I think it’s really cool how in both of the festivals there are wooden sticks (a cross in the Swedish culture and a pole in English culture) that little kids dance around to celebrate the arrival of a new season. It make some wonder what the origin of these traditions are, and if they all come from the same place.
Informant Bio: Informant is my mother. She was born in West Virginia and spent her childhood moving around the country, eventually settling in Massachusetts. She was exposed to many different traditions as she moved around the country as a child and still carries some with her to this day.
Context: I was interviewing my mother about traditions, stories and rituals she remembers from her childhood.
Item: “As a young child I enjoyed our May Day celebrations. The flagpole in front of the county court house was “dressed” up with brightly colored ribbons. The girls would each hold one ribbon and run around the pole. The younger girls succeed in making a big mess of the ribbons; but, as the girls got older, the movements improved and the spectacle was really beautiful and choreographed by a teacher at the elementary school”.
Analysis: This May Day celebration centered around the Maypole, and was directed by an elementary school teacher. It was a community wide event, much like May Day celebrations throughout history. The above account, with brightly colored ribbons, seems to celebrate the arrival of summer but does not have the sexual influences of European versions.
Historically, May Day has been a very political issue in the United States, with the first one on May 1, 1886 that had workers garnering support for lighter working hours. After World War II and in the wake of the Cold War, May Day was strongly associated with Marxists and the USSR and was thus white-washed from American culture and history. This may be why there is no major prevalence of May Day celebrations in the U.S. unlike many other major holidays. Recently, the Occupy movement has revitalized May Day in an effort to raise awareness and support for worker’s rights. This is in contrast to many parts of the world in which May Day has a strong and consistent history of celebration.
The source went to a private school in San Francisco, and every year the school has a May Celebration.
“Every year we’d have this huge festival, where each grade would sing a song. And um. Then we’d, the eight graders would do the May Pole, and all of the grades would do turkey in the straw, you know line dancing. And then at the very end, um, all- the whole school would line up, um, and each grade would line up shortest to tallest. And we’d all line up and make this huge line, and um, the tallest 8th grader would hold this, uh, dragon head, and behind it would be this sheet that would cover the entire rest of the school. Cause like each grade had 16 or 18 kids, so you know. It was K through 8. So the entire school would then do the dragon dance. The school was built in like 1918, and it was this woman’s house. But um, the house was in a fire, and so they had to leave the school. And then when the original school reopened, they did a parade, from the, from the temporary school to the renovated old building. And the dragon was like a part of the parade, so they do the dragon dance every year to commemorate it.”
This festival seems to take a lot from many different cultures. It reflects what a multi-cultural city San Francisco is. The fact that they’d have a may-pole, a European tradition in the same festival as a Dragon dance mirrors the East meets West aspects of the city. While the school was neither European or Chinese, they included aspects of both traditions.
May Day Festival
Every May Day there is a festival at Sigmund Sterns Grove in San Francisco. There were large fields and groves of trees where people would hang out and watch the festivities. The people involved in the festival were dressed up in fancy dress. The young girls involved would dance around the may pole.
Charlene grew up in the city of San Francisco. Every May Day she and her family would go to Sigmund Sterns Grove to watch the festival. She was very young when they did this, but she does not remember ever participating in the festivities, only watching them.
May Day is a celebration of the end of winter in the northern hemisphere. It also represents fertility and new life which is generally synonymous with that time of year. May Day has different backgrounds and is celebrated differently in different cultures. Charlene is of English decent, and the May Day festival her family used to attend was most similar to the May Day celebrated in England. It is interesting that this particular May Day celebration was more of a performance for people to watch rather than a festival for people to become involved in. It is also interesting that the people who came to watch at the time when Charlene went were not tourists from out of town, but were residents of San Francisco.
The festival is themed around spring and new life. The fact that this particular festival was held in a grove of trees and large fields coincides well with that concept. The may pole represents the idea of new life and fertility. The pole can be considered a phallic symbol. The only girls who are allowed to dance around it are those who are young and fertile. Charlene remembered best all of the pretty dresses the girls used to wear. People usually dress up for any sort of celebration, but also this could represent the girls trying to look their best in order to attract a partner and create new life.