There are many ways to spend a day off work. Some people like to relax and read a good book, others prefer the great outdoors and will go hiking or visit local sights. There are a few who enjoy one of life's stranger pastimes — that is, the pleasure surrounding greasy poles.
First off, this has nothing to do with pole dancing or politics, although 'climbing the greasy pole' is a euphemism for reaching the top of several tightly contested professions. Politics in particular is a well-known 'greasy pole' where, apparently, only the 'most slimy, grasping and competitive' can reach the top.
This Entry is about the actual activity of climbing greasy poles and, surprisingly, it's an activity that’s grown up independently around the world.
The act of climbing a greasy pole may seem a little pointless, but it's no more pointless than getting a high score in popular computer games, and only slightly more dangerous. Like many things in life, the joy of the act is being there, either as a participant or a spectator.
At the site, there'll be one large pole smeared with any grease1 in sufficient quantity to ensure that no grip can be gained on the pole. Atop the pole, which should be about 30ft high, will be either a flag, a hat, or indeed a ham. The object of the sport is to be the first to reach the prize, which will in turn translate into a pretty meaningless reward, usually the ham itself, a shank of mutton, or some other cut of prime meat.
The running order is decided in advance, and last year's winner usually gets the honour of climbing first. They are then followed by other previous winners and willing volunteers who are selected by drawing lots.
Of course, broken bones and bruises are par for this particular course, but apparently the reward isn't so much the Sunday dinner prize - more the instant kudos of being successful at the task.
The Rest of Europe
In Spain, the Tomatina Festival in Buñol offers more than just the world's largest tomato fight. During the week-long festivities there’s the opportunity to capture a ham tied to the top of a greasy pole. Anyone is welcome to enter, tourists and locals alike, but travel insurance may not cover the consequences of taking part.
In Sicily, climbing the greasy pole is a tradition at many festivals, and it’s thought the Italians brought the sport with them to the US.
The Rest of the World
Australians also enjoy the physical challenge of the greasy pole. Should you find yourself in Ulladulla around Easter, you can enjoy this event. Mind you, there are other imported traditions to enjoy as well, like the 'greasy pig' at the Blessing of the Fleet Festival.
In the Bahamas you can celebrate the Heroes Day holiday and participate in the conch-cracking contest held at McLean's Town. The celebrations include sculling and beer sucking, but the greasy-pole contest is as traditional there as the many delightful local dishes.
In Thailand, the greasy pole is made from bamboo, and instead of flags or meat-stuffs the pole offers baht, the local currency, as a reward. The greasy pole can be seen at many locations throughout Thailand, but one of the most popular is the Buffalo Racing Festival at Chonburi in October each year.
In Graceville, Florida, climbing the greasy pole was introduced during the war years2 as part of the Independence Day festivities. Although no longer a feature, it’s remembered fondly by old-timers.
The US has also given us a variation on the challenge with the 'walking the greasy pole' competition. This most famously happens at the St Peter's Fiesta in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In this event, a 45ft pole is extended over the harbour and entrants race to find traction and grasp the flag, before slipping to their inevitable dip in the sea.
Other Greasy Poles
If you've never heard of the greasy pole before today — where have you been?
It was the title of episodes in both The Darling Buds of May and Yes Minister, and has also been the title of a novel set in Haiti — where apparently it's still a pretty big event.
In the UK, health and safety regulations have had a considerable impact on the sport. The insurance costs associated with protecting the willing participants from themselves have made the sport increasingly rare, but if you're lucky you can still witness this spectacle.
If you're planning a fair or fêtes this summer, why not give it a go and keep the tradition alive. You don't have to go for such a long pole, and the prize doesn't have to cost a fortune. Just be aware of health and safety and it should be only marginally more dangerous than a bouncy castle.