May Day in Germany, Walpurgisnacht and Maibaum

By Francine McKenna on Email

Long before it became an International Workers Day, Tag der Arbeit or a ‘Socialist Bank Holiday’, May 1st, May Day had roots with the Beltane pagan festival, was a folk tradition, a Celtic Festival of Fire, and for the Romans a time to worship Life, Fertility and New Beginnings.

The revelry still begins on May Day Eve in many areas of Germany with Walpurgisnacht, when celebrating witches were believed to gather on the Brocken, the highest of north central Germany’s Harz Mountains, to have fun and enjoy themselves, whatever that involved for witches, while waiting for dawn to break and bring with it the beginning of the summer.

Walpurgisnacht celebrations focus around large communal bonfires in some areas, however in others, especially in south and southwest Germany, the night before the May Day celebrations, Freinacht as it is known in Bavaria, is filled with making as much mischief and noise as possible. Vehicles are sprayed with shaving foam, anything small and mobile enough to be moved is liable to find itself somewhere completely different from where it started, so hiding things beforehand is optional but sensible, graffiti is sprayed on doors and walls, paper streamers of all types are hung from or around trees, or in fact anything tall. And it is really not a good idea to leave a car outside on Walpurgisnacht, as they seem to attract shaving foam and lipstick paint jobs.

Witch like celebrations? Probably. It is mostly young people who take part, and is all usually innocent and easily rectified exuberance, nevertheless occasionally there are more serious consequences.

Together with sore heads in some sections of the community the morning brings a public holiday in Germany, and May Day and Maibaum, literally May Tree, celebrations. Maibaum, or Maypoles, are a continuing part of German May Day tradition, especially in Bavaria, which, as they are replaced every three or five years depending on the condition of the original wooden pole, means dependably regular spring festivities in the various towns and villages.

A tall and perfectly straight pine or birch tree is chosen from the forest, felled, finished and painted. However the custom is for men from neighboring towns and villages to try to steal the completed pole and ransom it for large amounts of beer and food known as Brotzeit, a ‘snack’, so for the time leading up to the May Day celebrations the Maypole must be protected 24 hours a day. Nevertheless despite this vigilance, and the fact that by tradition each pole has to be between 20 to 30 meters high, the taller the better, so it could be almost 100 feet and neither light nor easily maneuverable, the thieves sometimes succeed in taking it past the cut off point, the village signpost. After which, if the ransom is not paid, the Maypole can be chopped up for firewood or, in order to embarrass the original owners as much as possible, erected next to the one belonging to the kidnappers with a plaque giving its origins. One year the 20 meter Maypole was stolen by helicopter from Bavaria’s Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany.

Unlike other regions of Germany where a Maibaum is often painted red to symbolize the creation of life with white for new beginnings, in Bavaria the stripes are Bavarian sky blue and white, but, whatever the color of the pole, once they are erected many will be hung with beautifully carved and painted shields. These represent the symbols of the local trades and guilds, the butcher, plumber, dairy farmer, brewery, pharmacist, fireman, lawyer, carpenter etc., as one of the original purposes of a maypole was to show visitors the services offered by the town or village.

Almost the entire population in the smaller towns and villages, in Bavaria many, including young children, wearing Tracht the traditional costume of dirndls, gathered skirts, and lederhosen, leather shorts or trousers, as well as outsiders from neighboring villages or visitors passing through, begin May Day’s celebrations by accompanying the Maibaum as it is pulled along by tractor to the town center or market place in a procession led by the local brass band.

Surrounded by the festivities, music, singing, dancing, food, especially local specialties which always include the ubiquitous Brezeln and Wuerste, pretzels and sausages, and beer, for at least some of the townspeople several hours of hard labor now lie ahead with ropes and pulleys, and at times even cranes, before the Maypole is successfully erected.

Maibaumkraxeln, Maypole climbing, is popular ‘fun to watch’ May Day sport. Difficult because it takes place on maypoles which have deliberately been made as slippery as possible, and all the potential climbers have their favorite, sometimes bizarre, techniques to try to get to the top without falling off. After that there is the how many climbers can be on the Maypole at one time game, when it ends up looking like a giant kebab, and at the moment the world record stands at 34.

More often than not it is a beautiful May spring day, but it would make no difference if it was in the midst of a sudden cold spell, pouring rain, snow or a thunderstorm, as soon as the ‘mission has been accomplished’ and that Maypole is in place, everyone crowds into a tent if necessary and the serious partying begins. Celebrations and gemuetlichkeit continue far into the night. It isn’t called ‘tanz in den Mai’, dance into May, for nothing because, whatever the weather and whenever it is that summertime is believed to officially start, with May Day summer ‘has arrived’ in this small part of the world.


Photos by Awaya Legends (top) & digital cat (middle)

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Francine McKenna