The little known story of how Victorian Christians re-invented May Day

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Maypole dancing was re-invented in the Victorian era as a tradition for Church of England schools. This is the story ...


In England, May is a lovely month, with the start of good weather, blossom, bluebells, and white hawthorn flowering, and the birds are singing. The first day of May is called May Day. Since 1871, it had been a bank holiday in Scotland, and in 1978 it was extended to the whole of the United Kingdom. The May Day Bank Holiday, also called Early May Bank Holiday, falls on the first Monday in May.


The origin of May Day celebrations is lost in the midst of time. A tall, thin, stripped tree or pole was a focus for celebration. Each May Day morning, it was the custom to deck the poles with wreaths of flowers, and local people would dance around it. It was often raucous, with lots of drinking.

How maypole dancing was banned

Maypole dancing was not popular with the Puritans. In 1644, the Puritan Parliament in London banned maypole dancing as "a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness." In 1660, when the British monarchy was re-established under Charles II, maypoles were restored in many places. The tallest was erected in the Strand in London in 1661, which was 134 feet tall. Maypole dancing continued into Victorian times in a few locations, but was a dying tradition.

Victorian renaissance

The modern renaissance of maypole dancing dates back to its romantic re-invention by London theatres during the Victorian era. From 1836, the Old Vic had a choreographed maypole dance with coloured ribbons on its stage. This was popular and copied across the country. From 1858, Chapino's Juvenile Ballet Troupe connected to His Majesty's Theatre toured the country with a maypole dance. The artistic dance created a multi-coloured braided pattern which crept steadily down the pole. They performed in many towns around England in the 1860s and 1870s, which led some villages to copy the idea.

Whitelands College

In 1841, the Church of England's National Society (now the Church of England Education Office) founded Whitelands teacher training college for women. This was in order to supply their growing network of Church of England primary schools. The college was originally based in Whitelands House on King's Road in Chelsea, in London, which gave it its name. It was the first British college of higher education to admit women. It moved in 1931 to Putney, and in 1965 became co-educational admitting men. It is now part of the University of Roehampton.

John Ruskin

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was a Professor of Art at Oxford University. John's mother Margaret Ruskin was an evangelical Christian who taught her son to read the Bible from start to finish and commit passages to memory. He returned to his childhood faith in the 1870s, and was a key character in British Christian socialism, (as opposed to the atheist communism which developed separately elsewhere). About 1877, Ruskin became involved with Whitelands, through his friend, the Reverend Canon John Pincher Faunthorpe (1839-1924) who was College Principal for 33 years from 1874 to 1907

Maypole dancing for schools

Drawing on existing traditions, Ruskin encouraged maypole dancing as part of non-competitive physical education. The idea was to develop self-confidence and team skills. The dances were to be efficiently put together and required co-operation and co-ordination, but were also fun. From 1881, maypole dancing was part of the tradition at Whitelands College. It included an annual festival, which is still held today, which the enthroning of a May Queen (now they have a May King as well), presided over by a visiting Anglican bishop.

Maypole dances typically consisted of pairs of boys and girls standing alternately around the base of the pole, and each holding the end of a ribbon. They then weave in and around each other, with the boys going in one direction and the girls going the other. The ribbons are woven together around the pole in a pattern, until the dancers meet at base of the pole. These structured dances were a re-invention of maypole dancing with little in common with the ancient version of the custom.

Christian symbolism

The maypole dance can be seen to be symbolic of the Christian life. The maypole represents Christianity firmly secured in God, pointing up to heaven and reaching down through Jesus. The dances symbolise how Christ weaves the threads of our lives into a tapestry, which is not apparent until the end, and all those who hold on tirelessly to the end will be saved. The different coloured ribbons which weave together a pattern, symbolise how Christians although different are united in diversity. Now stripped of any pagan elements, maypole dancing was suitable for Church of England schools and Anglican school fetes.

How maypole dancing was popularised

The women teachers (then called school mistresses) from Whitelands went out to teach across England, and also into the British Empire. These teachers introduced maypole dancing to their Anglican schools as a form activity suitable for Christian children. As the idea grew in popularity, so enthusiasts started to develop new dances, and other schools also adopted it. Some schools still do maypole dancing, although the May Day heyday was in the interwar years, but it can be sometimes seen at English rural village events and celebrations. Some schools use the dance as part of Pentecost, which often falls in May.

May Day and St Joseph

The English May Day has no connection to International Worker's Day also called Labour Day (or spelt Labor Day in the USA). In response, Pope Pius XII declared 1st May as Saint Joseph the Worker in 1955. This recalls St Joseph the carpenter and foster father of Jesus.