This friend told me this story late at night in the kitchen on May 1, 2021. We were surrounded by four other friends who moved in and out of the room, and he spoke about his experience attending annual Maypole celebrations at a New York (Ghent) Waldorf School.
“I went to a very alternative school called a Waldorf School… and they have a lot of different celebrations and practices and things, and one that is very timely is their May Day celebration… one of the main components of May Day is a maypole. I’m not sure which kids are assigned different parts but each has a ribbon and they dance around the pole creating a pattern, this interesting woven pattern on the pole. The ribbons all weave to form a lattice.”
The speaker said that he thought the celebration might be a way to welcome summer, and that different grades performed different tasks in the May Day celebration. The school included grades Kindergarten through twelfth grade, and students in the third grade often performed the Maypole dance. Students in the sixth and seventh grades played instruments (flute, cello, violin, clarinet, viola) in the orchestra.
I asked the speaker to explain, in his own words, what it meant to attend a Waldorf school. “Waldorf school is a pedagogical movement that began in Germany as an education system started by these same people wo run the Waldorf Hotels or Waldorf cigarette companies, and they started this school for the kids of the factory workers,” the speaker said. “And the goal is like to offer holistic creativity-focused education. So there’s a lot of visual arts and performing arts and a lot of things that wouldn’t really fall under the generally accepted scope of academics.”
The speaker said that grounds crew set up the 20- or 30-foot Maypole in late April and that the structure stayed up for a few weeks after May. He said that every student had to take part in this celebration. Younger students would get excited about the celebration. He said that older students did not want to stand in the hot sun playing a violin wearing a dress shirt.
The speaker said that he does not do anything special for May Day, and that he did not appreciate this celebration until after he left the Waldorf school. “That school never really communicated why we were doing what we were doing,” he said, noting that he appreciates this experience in retrospect
I did not know that this friend attended a Waldorf school, and I was able to tell him later that the Maypole dance is a fertility dance. It seems odd that third graders would take part in this dance, but they are also young and full of life. The Maypole represents a phallus. I asked questions about how the students received this tradition, and it struck me odd that a school designed to promote the arts would not explain the history or meaning of this celebration.
It is also relevant that this speaker told this tale on May 1. He later explained that he remembered this tradition because he had received a school email describing online May Day celebrations. This shows that some newsletters can be very important for the communities in which they share information. He continues to be loosely part of this Waldorf school community long after he graduated and moved away from this location.