The Greasy Pole Contest

In January, I wrote a blog about crazy tours and contests, asking you to share the more unusual customs and contests of your own countries. On reviewing your comments, I was surprised to discover that both Heloisa T. Ramos Roberto of Brazil and William Setiawan of Indonesia mentioned contests that involve climbing a slippery pole to grab a prize. On consulting the Great Online Oracle, I was even more surprised to discover that similar contests are held on almost every continent and that greased pole climbing and mud-slinging were even special events at the 1904 Olympic Games (for rather dubious reasons, I should add).

Of course, I immediately began wondering about the practical origins of such contests. Maybe our earliest ancestors were keen to test their skill at fleeing into trees, to ensure that the best climbers went up first and highest, so that they didn’t occupy the lower branches. In some instances, such contests may have started out as a test of fruit-picking or mast-climbing ability, to see who could complete these tasks with the lowest risk of injury. But there are also clear indications that pole-climbing is a test (a celebration!) of cooperation, because in most contests it is almost impossible to reach the top alone. And then I found the photo below, which is a comical reminder that pole-climbing was also a handy skill in wartime if you wanted to cut or install telegraph and telephone lines.

Telephone electricians training at the University of Michigan around 1918. (U.S. National Archives)

Clearly, the origins of such contests vary, but in almost all instances they are part of traditional festivals and celebrations. Considering the popularity of television series in which groups of madmen (and the occasional woman) risk their lives for no other reason than to entertain viewers, I think the time is ripe for an international competition featuring teams of greased pole climbers from different countries who put their courage and stamina against one another. To get the ball rolling (or the man climbing), here’s a provisional calendar of international greased pole events:

Brazil – Pole-climbing is a traditional event during the Festa Junina (Festa de São João), which is celebrated throughout Brazil in June, around the time that midsummer is celebrated in the Northern hemisphere.

Massachusetts, USA – The horizontal greased pole contest is one of the highlights of the St Peter’s Fiesta in the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, held on the weekend closest to the Feast of St Peter (29 June).

Indonesia – Panjat Pinang contests are held in most Indonesian villages on Independence Day (17 August). The trunk of a nut tree is oiled and erected in the centre of the village. Men attempt to climb up and grab one of the prizes attached to a wheel at the top of the pole.

Isle of Wight, UK – Visitors to the Seaview Regatta will be treated to a horizontal greasy pole contest on 22 August this year.

Papua New Guinea – Vertical pole-climbing is a popular event during the Independence Day festivities held on 16 September.

Thailand – You can test your pole-climbing skills during the buffalo races in Chonburi City, usually held during the first weekend of October.

Philippines – The Masskara Festival in Bacolod City, held during the third weekend of October, has plenty to offer lovers of the greasy pole.

The above calendar is by no means complete, but I’ve run out of ways to work “greasy pole” and “pole-climbing” into a sentence. Feel free to drop a comment listing any event I may have missed.