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Live free and dance -- around a New Hampshire maypole -- this spring!

Maypole dancing in tiny Nelson NH
Maypole dancing in tiny Nelson NH
Jacob & Elizabeth Jarvela

One would not expect the granite foundation of New Hampshire to suggest such frivolity, but the practice of dancing around a maypole seems to be coming back in fashion. Nathaniel Hawthorne so loved the state his last day was spent hiking the White Mountains. He would be pleased that the severe Puritans of New England he described in “The May Pole of Merry Mount” – casting out the wreath of roses – are giving way to bucolic New Hampshire greens, filled with children and adults weaving colorful ribbons around a chosen pole or tree.

Old 1920s photographs at the Portsmouth Athenaeum library show children in Portsmouth's Haven elementary school with their classroom maypole. Another in the collections of the University of New Hampshire in Durham shows children holding maypole ribbons outside their school in Plymouth. Today, the tradition that may have taken root in demonstrations at the Renaissance Faire, is popping up on lawns all over the state.

In Wilton, the High Mowing School May Day is an annual tradition with a full schedule of maypole and Morris dancing on May 3rd. Free and open to the public the Festival lasts from 10:30 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon and includes flower-crown making, a “Welcome Spring” skit and family food and entertainment. In Lancaster, one of the celebrations of the town’s 250th birthday is a maypole dance in Centennial Park on May 13. The New Hampshire Farm Museum hosts its Spring Farm Day on May 17, with new-born spring farm animals and a maypole (probably not on the same lawn). Canterbury Shaker Village presents its annual Opening Day Heifer Parade with fiddling and maypole dancing on May 3. The museum is open free all day and the event marks the return of the museum’s Brookford Farm cows to their seasonal pastures. Even tiny Nelson in the southwest Monadnock Region (population 700) hosts a maypole dance on May 4.

When Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth opens for the season on May 1st, its the signal to launch May Day festivities that last all month long. The Victorian game lawn behind the Goodwin Mansion, home to New Hampshire’s Civil War Governor Ichabod Goodwin, has a maypole, May basket crafts and other celebrations of the spring. The May events are designed to draw visitors into the Museum’s eight historic gardens containing heirloom plants, heritage orchards and two hives of honey bees to keep the flowers happy. In addition to the Victorian Goodwin Garden and its companion Children’s Garden, there is a c. 1919 Russian-Jewish immigrant’s garden, a World War II Victory Garden, an ethnobotanical herb garden and a“three sisters” colonial kitchen garden.

The early Victorians like Hawthorne were fond of such old English past-times, remembered in the very name of the town of Plaistow: "plaistowe," meaning "an open space or greenwood, near the center of a village where the maypole stood and where sports at holiday times were carried on.” So, it seems are 21st century New Hampshire-ites.