In pagan Europe, today—May Day!—was considered the first day of summer, so what better time to rejoice in the warmer weather and celebrate agriculture and fertility for crops, livestock, and all the good folks? Descriptions about the celebrations:
May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. It is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen, and celebrations involving a Maypole, around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons. (From New World Encyclopedia.)
Wikipedia tells us that, while the origins of the Maypole are unknown, “it has been speculated that it originally had some importance in the Germanic paganism of Iron Age and early Medieval cultures, and that the tradition survived Christianisation, albeit losing any original meaning that it had.” (From Wikipedia.) Dancing ’round the Maypole hasn’t been just in Germany, but in Austria, Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland, the United States, and Piceno in Italy.
As to the Maypole’s symbolism:
The symbolism of the maypole has been continuously debated by folklorists for centuries, although no set conclusion has ever been arrived at. Some scholars classify maypoles as symbols of the world axis (axis mundi). The fact that they were found primarily in areas of Germanic Europe, where, prior to Christianisation, Germanic paganism was followed in various forms, has led to speculation that the maypoles were in some way a continuation of a Germanic pagan tradition. One theory holds that they were a remnant of the Germanic reverence for sacred trees, as there is evidence for various sacred trees and wooden pillars that were venerated by the pagans across much of Germanic Europe, including Thor’s Oak and the Irminsul. It is also known that, in Norse paganism, cosmological views held that the universe was a world tree, known as Yggdrasil. There is therefore speculation that the maypole was in some way a continuance of this tradition.
Non-Germanic people have viewed them as having phallic symbolism, an idea which was purported by Thomas Hobbes, who erroneously believed that the poles dated back to the Roman worship of the god Priapus. This notion has been supported by various figures since, including the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. (From Wikipedia.)
Here are some pics from Flickr with revelers “winding the pole” with ribbons … click on the pics to jump to the photographers’ Flickr pages: