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A History of the Maypole Celebration at Miss Fine's and Princeton Day
A History of the Maypole Celebration at Miss Fine's and Princeton Day

On May 1, Princeton Day School will celebrate the start of spring with the Maypole dance performed by our second grade students on the lawn behind Colross. A rich and deep tradition, the Maypole celebration stretches back to Miss Fine's School, established in 1899. Members of the School's Alumni Board, Linda Maxwell Stefanelli MFS '62, Barbara Rose MFS '64 and Paris McLean '00, together have written a history of the tradition at Miss Fine's School and Princeton Day School.

Spring—it's a time of promise and renewal that's been celebrated throughout time and across cultures. May Day marked the season of rebirth and evolved over centuries from pagan rituals to secular celebrations that became popular traditions at women's schools and colleges in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Established in 1899, Miss Fine's School was no exception. From its earliest days until the merger in 1965, the school produced an elaborate May Day festival that involved the entire school and showcased student leadership. It blended medieval pageantry with academic achievement in a celebration that featured a May Queen, who was president-elect of the Student Council, and a "court" of student officers who were feted with singing, dancing, and theatrical productions.

Against a backdrop of blooming cherry trees and magnolias, the event began with a procession from the school building onto the adjacent playing field, past administrators, parents and friends. The May Queen, carrying a large bouquet of spring flowers and accompanied by two second-grade pages, led her court, all in white dresses, onto a viewing platform. As each class paraded by, it laid flowers along the platform. The highlight of the day was the official crowning of the May Queen by the previous year's queen. Student entertainment included maypole dancing, a popular tradition performed by seniors. As they danced, they wove - and unwove - colorful ribbons in intricate patterns around the maypoles. Student plays were often performed and after an indoor stage was built in the 1950s, the annual eighth grade play was presented inside to conclude the day's festivities.

After the founding of Princeton Day School, the Maypole dance continued, standing the test of time like many great Princeton Day School traditions. It remains a cornerstone of our community. Each year a new group of eager, wide-eyed second grade Panthers embark on the challenge of learning the rhythm, weaving, and magic that captures the Maypole dance. If you arrive on the Great Road in early April, your eyes will guide you to the Lower School amphitheater, which transforms into training ground and practice facility for the children and educators of the second grade.

Before ribbons are ever handed out to the small, yet mighty hands of the children, the second grade educators must first teach "the proper grip." The budding Maypole dancers quickly learn a new vocabulary word, "taut," signaling that their ribbons must be firm and tight, offering no slack. Quickly learning an "A-B-A-B" pattern of over and under movements between the ribbons may sound easy enough, yet is so very far from the truth. One may witness dropped ribbons, students moving in the wrong direction, and the occasional knot. These lessons of patience, grit, and resilience fortify the students, as they prepare for their final production.

With families, classmates, educators and alumni sprawling over the Colross lawn, these newly minted dancers bravely line their marks in front of the Maypole. To the chorus of the Lower School Strings program, the second grade proudly and gracefully weave, dance, and carry on a tradition that will remain a rite of passage for second grade and a signal of spring to our diverse and storied Princeton Day School community.