Rites and Ribbons

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Twirling above us in the sunlight, bedecked with its colorful flowers and ribbons — the Maypole is a contemporary, literal symbol of ancient ritual that celebrates the coming of summer and the fertility of the land. Variously dubbed (the Germanic Walpurgisnacht, the Gaelic Celtic Beltane), the Maypole celebration has roots in Floralia, the festival of the Roman goddess of flowers, Flora. When Christianity spread through Europe, what was primarily a Pagan feast evolved into a secular May Day holiday — still a recognized cultural marker held between the spring equinox and summer solstice.

Tucson observes the Maypole tradition in many ways: from school spring festivals to the Matachin’s Maypole dance, conducted by the Pascua Yaqui during religious feast days and Pascua village fiestas. Dedicated by vow in Catholic tradition as “soldiers of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” the society of Matachin dancers helps link the Pascua Yaqui community to the spiritual world and its ancestors. The Matachin’s Maypole dance may be seen in the early evening and at dawn during fiestas and holy days, with the crown on top of the Maypole a tribute to Mary, the patron of the Matachinis. Only members of the Matachin dance society may dance the unique ceremony, which is learned and passed down from one generation to another.

TAWN Maypole Beltane Dance
TAWN Maypole Beltane Dance

Tucson also frolics in the Beltane Maypole tradition, with this year’s Beltane festivities held at Himmel Park on April 27. The Beltane ritual is hosted annually by Tucson Area Wiccan-Pagan Network (TAWN), the non-profit educational networking arm of Tucson’s Neo-Pagan, Heathen, and polytheist communities. According to its publicist Tish Haymer, TAWN (which builds communications and organizes programs available to the non-Pagan public) has hosted a Beltane ritual for at least 25 years.

The Beltane Maypole, symbolic also of the multi-cultural “tree of life” image, receives the full decorative treatment and respect in Tucson, where there is a ceremony during which the ceremony circle is cast, and where the pole is set.

Towering above the dancers, who held ribbons suspended from a centerpiece, the Tucson Beltane Maypole was 13 feet, symbolic of the axis shaft upon which the earth spins. According to Chandra Nelson, High Priestess of Hearths Gate (the 10-year old Tucson Wiccan Coven which hosted this year’s Beltane), the Maypole was bedecked with multicolored ribbons (in colors selected by participants), which represented intentions of the dancers. As she explains:

The ceremony began with a guided meditation, with the circle then cast to create a sacred space to enclose the magic of the ceremony. There were 20 participating in the Maypole dance this year, with everyone selecting their ribbon color with symbolic personal meaning. For example, the color green may symbolize wealth; blue may mean health. We played Celtic music, while the inner and outer circle of dancers assembled, facing each other. The circles then weaved their ribbons over and under, in a lively skip or walk, stopping when the ribbons were wound completely. The dancing weaved meaning and the essence of the intentions into a unified braid around the pole. Once braided, the ends of the ribbons were tied off, with dancers taking a piece of their ribbons to keep at home or burn in their Yule fires. In a traditional Beltane ceremony, there would be cake and ale after the ceremony — in Tucson’s Himmel Park ceremony we shared a community feast of punch and animal crackers.”

Across Tucson, the Maypoles are stored for next year. But in the interweaving of ribbons in the dance that occurred throughout Tucson ceremonies, spirits were lifted, symbolic of interaction in our complex world, with intentions unified around a common axis of community.

TAWN publicist Tish Haymer reports additional public ceremonies:

    • A free monthly meet & greet, appropriately called a Cauldronluck, is held, with potluck & networking/socializing following a TAWN business meeting that is open to anyone interested in learning about Paganism. “We’re here to educate, and to have fun doing it,” she says.
    • TAWN also holds two large festivals each year, as close to the equinoxes as possible: Spring Fest and Fall Fest. Both feature information booths from the various traditions, a merchant’s marketplace, Tarot & psychic readers, workshops & discussion groups on various topics of interest, kid’s activities, and an Equinox ritual at the end of the event, hosted by one of the local covens or groups. Free admission (Because TAWN conducts a food drive for the Community Food Bank, attendees are asked to donate a non-perishable item to the cause.)
    • The next TAWN open public ritual will be the Midsummer ritual, hosted by the Coven of the Dragon Moon, taking place on Saturday, June 21, noon-2pm, at Himmel Park. The next Cauldronluck will be on Sunday, June 8, 11am-1pm, at La Madera Park (Treat Ave. & Florence Dr.).
    • Additional TAWN information:


Maypole references:

Armory Park Maypole Dance, circa 1905
Armory Park Maypole Dance, circa 1905

Armory Park Maypole Dance, circa 1905, Arizona Historical Society Library and Archives, Mexican Heritage Project of Arizona Memory Project: http://azmemory.azlibrary.gov/cdm/ref/collection/ahsmexican/id/338

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