Associate Professor Bocánová from the Department of Ethnology: May was a symbol of great social prestige, if a girl didn't get it, it was a disgrace

On April 30th, the centuries-old tradition of our ancestors was commemorated by the university folklore group Trnafčan under the title "Tý trnafské máje". The background of this persistent tradition was explained to us by Assoc. Prof. Martina Bocánová, PhD.

What was the purpose of building maypoles in the past? Why was such an activity carried out?

Not only in the past, but also during the month of May today, maypoles decorate villages and towns. In the past, they were seen much more often because young men built them for girls as a sign of love and affection. Nowadays, maypoles are also built for little girls or one large maypole is preferred for all the girls and women in the village.

The decorated tree as a sign of love has been documented since the 15th century. It was an important element of customary law because it was a public promise of love and a promise of marriage. Maypoles were perceived this way until the mid-16th century when church weddings were introduced. From the end of the 18th century, young men also stopped building numerous maypoles for young girls and instead erected one common tree for all young women in several locations.

This change was supported by numerous bans on tree cutting, fines for illegal tree felling, and the fact that the original meaning was gradually forgotten. However, this symbol never completely disappeared from our folk culture, and at the end of the 20th century, it returned to the cities where it had gradually been forgotten during the 19th century.

What kind of trees were usually used, how were they decorated, and were there any accompanying activities?

Maypoles were built by young men on the night of May 1st. Before this date, the tree was cut and cleaned from branches all the way to the top, where the green top was left. The tree was also whitened from the bark. The top was adorned with colorful ribbons, and in some locations, a bottle of liquor was attached to the top. Boys then tried to get it during the procession or during the assembly of the maypole. The task was to climb up the smooth trunk. The prepared tree was carried by boys accompanied by music and singing to the designated place where it was firmly fixed in a hole in the ground. Having a personal maypole erected was a great honor for a young girl.

An important part of this tradition were the "maypole rounds", when boys would visit houses where young girls lived and dance in front of them. In households where the boys were expected, the hosts always prepared refreshments. These were handed to the boy who introduced himself as the donor of the maypole. The conclusion of the festivities belonged to a big celebration, which took place at the mayor's house, later in the village or cultural center. During this celebration, girls who were given a maypole had the duty to invite the boy who erected the pole to dance. However, the name of the donor was not always known. Secret admirers could remain anonymous.

The erected maypole was a symbol of great social prestige, meaning that the girl was popular and would be a welcome future bride. In localities where individual maypoles were built, it was considered a shame if a certain girl did not receive one. During field research, I also came across situations where if a popular girl was to be given a maypole by several boys, they would destroy each other's poles, which led to conflicts.

Does this activity differ in Trnava from other regions in Slovakia?

In general, the construction of maypoles does not differ much between individual localities. Differences can be found, for example, in the selection of trees. In places where tall conifers grew, young birch trees were rarely used for this purpose. This is the case, for example, in western Slovakia, around Nitra... The pole was also colorfully decorated and placed at the gate or on the gate of the house where the girl lived. In general, the maypole was not erected for young girls or married women.

Submitted by: Kristína Kameníková
Responsible person: Mgr. Nikoleta Vanková, MBA.
Source: UCM in Trnava
Inserted: 10.5.2023
Updated: 23.5.2023