The May Day domestication of the Beltane celebration and the vital role of the maypole, which the event literally revolves around, veils more than its pagan origins. The history of the maypole includes its little known place in the popular festivals of revolutionary France at the end of the 18th Century. French Catholicism successfully eradicated most vestiges of the maypole’s pagan symbolism, but the peasants’ festivities associated with it persisted despite the priests’ efforts to suppress them.
The planting of the pole marked the settling of community accounts. Rents paid, labor contracts finalized, unsettled disputes resolved, and old business of all sorts completed initiated the annual celebration around the maypole. The past was noted, or paid, and the future started afresh with dancing and singing and drinking. The clergy frowned, the nobility hid and mostly the king’s regime tolerated the frivolity.
But when the Bastille was liberated, and the Republic founded, the peasants took the upheaval to mean that they could overthrow the yoke of subservience to the aristocrats and clergy. The prospects of a better life were heralded as the maypoles came out everywhere to signify the momentous occasion – the end of the old, and despised, order. Communities that had neglected the maypole pageant previously, revived it with gusto. The trees gathered from the forest for the maypoles were larger, and the food and drink correspondingly increased.
The merriment however reached new heights beyond the gastronomic prospects, when symbols of authority where stripped from chateaus and churches and set afire. Elaborately designed weathercocks, commissioned by the local 1-percent to grace their mansions, and their equally expensive pews that dominated the floor space of the local churches, went up in smoke – the utter, and calmly systematic, destruction of the most obvious signs of privilege. The revolutionaries in Paris were shocked as news reached the capital of these rapidly spreading festivities, but they were helpless to suppress them. It was all over before they could muster a response.
Occupy and the recent global urban insurrections comes to mind when reading Mona Ozouf’s Festivals and the French Revolution which details the eruptions by unruly provincials as they freed themselves of submissiveness to authority. However, instead of violent crackdowns on the peasantry, the leaders of the Revolution chose to co-opt the popular festivities by meticulously designing and staging their own festivals for the edification of the masses and for their education in Republican sentiments. The topics celebrated included Youth, Victories, Old Age, Agriculture, Spouses, the Sovereignty of the People and, of course, Reason and, not to be forgotten, Festival of the King’s Death.
The festivals, and there were thousands of them, were staged all over the land in the ten-year period up to Bonaparte’s coup, and they were pivotal for the expansion of the new order. We could say that they were the mass media of the era. And like mass media today, it served the purposes of power more than the noble purposes of enlightenment. The resources and manpower devoted to this endeavor were extraordinary, but as the leaders realized, witnessing the carnivalistic mobilizations of the people, necessary to gain control of the revolutionary process.
They managed, for example, to cleverly redirect the popular impulses when the people began planting Liberty Trees along with erecting maypoles. The cultural symbolism of the tree is obvious in a revolutionary situation, but the French didn’t innovate here. The Liberty Tree, originally called The May Tree, comes from the American Colonies ten years before the Declaration of Independence. The Colonists used the trees as centers to assemble for anti-British protests and to post handbills to these living kiosks. In 1775, Tom Paine wrote a widely distributed poem in honor of these trees.
For freemen like brothers agree
With one spirit endued
They one friendship pursued
And their temple was Liberty tree
The French leaders in the capital, to get the march on the peasants, began issuing declarations regarding the size and type of tree to plant and then the precise ceremony to accompany the planting.
The Festivals were somewhat successful in establishing conformity with the wishes of the Paris elite, but disobedience prevailed as the commoners resisted regimentation to the new order – their desires once released were not to be confined anew. And this resistance was by no means limited to the peasants of the countryside, with Marat’s death, the sans-culottes of Paris rose up in citywide mourning, defying all restrictions on demonstration.
Attempts to limit processions were another defeat for the men of the Revolution. Historically public displays marked all celebrations, including the thirty-two feast days observed in Paris, and which even the Church tried to limit before the Revolution. It is debatable that to continue to observe the Church calendar, along with the newly imposed revolutionary one, demonstrated the populaces’ religiosity more than its desire for community ritual in an otherwise oppressive daily life.
The leaders of the French Revolution in their quest to introduce an “enlightened” world to the populace, and to banish superstition and servility, relied upon their privileged education in the classics of Greece and Rome. The generalized motif of all the festivals related back to a nobler age. And here, on the presumption of greater knowledge, an “elevated” perspective on life, the French Revolution launched the “expert” to counter the monarchists and the clergy – the forces of darkness.
Today, unfortunately, we continue to be plagued a host of “informed sources” – be they legislative advisers, economists, urban planners or academics of dubious distinction beyond conformism. All of them corollaries of authoritarianism. On May Day we can speculate on what a richer life – one imbued with the true nobility of struggles for freedom and a desire to celebrate the abundance of joy nature holds – if only we overthrow the new forces of darkness that have gained their hold on us. It’s time to replant Trees of Liberty.