On the eve of 1 May a tree called maypole is erected on town squares across Germany – a tradition symbolising fertility that goes back to the 16th century. At the top of an up to 30m tall stripped trunk a birch tree and a wreath decorated with colourful ribbons are placed. Afterwards the tree trunk is decorated with regional symbols by young men.
In Bavaria, the pole is usually painted in the Bavarian colours of white and blue. In some regions it is common to try to steal the maypole from a village nearby. If the mission is successful, the loser has to organise a festival with a lot of food and beer. Another fun tradition related to the Maypole is called “Kraxeln” which means climbing the trunk by only using your own hands and feet as well as saliva and tar pitch.
Erecting the Maypole
Traditionally, during the night leading up to 1 May young men cut down birch trees in the forest to set up a little maypole as a proof of love in front of the house of their beloved young woman. As some girls are very popular, competitors remove each other’s trees and the admirer who’s the last one to set up a tree wins. On 31 May the trees will be picked up again by the candidates – until then, the admired lady has to be sure about her decision. In leap years it is upon the young ladies to present a little maypole to their adored ones.
Nowadays the purpose of impressing a loved one might not be as important anymore, but erecting the maypole and the competition among neighbouring villages, stealing each other’s trees, remains.
Dance into May
On the eve before 1 May People especially in Southern parts of Germany organise dance events in villages and towns. At the so called “Dance into May” (Tanz in den Mai) people wear traditional attire, sing songs together traditional folk music. Originally this festival was attentively watched by the village community as future couples were getting to know each other. Mayday events in clubs are also very popular events.
The night of 30 April is called Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht) or Witches’ Night (Hexennacht). The name refers to Saint Walpurga, an English missionary turned nun who lived in the 8th century. The name Walpurgis Night was made popular by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his tragedy Faust.
It is believed to be the night when witches meet on the Brocken, which is the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, and wait for spring to arrive. To drive away demons, a huge fire is lit and people celebrate through the night.
In some areas there is also the May Jump (Maisprung), where couples jump over the fire holding hands. Children use this magical night to play pranks on their neighbours, for example by hiding their possessions or decorating cars with toilet paper.
May Wine, also called Maibowle or Maitrank, is made out of white wine and sparkling wine. The herb sweet woodruff, known as Waldmeister in Germany, is steeped into the wine to add flavor. In smaller doses, sweet woodruff has a stimulating effect and can also help with headaches. May Wine tastes light and fresh and is perfect for celebrating the beginning of spring.
Riots on Labour Day
The 1 May is politically significant, too: numerous trade unions organise campaigns and events to draw attention to the importance of the workers' movement. Since the end of the 19th century, demonstrations for workers’ rights have taken place on 1 May. For most parts the demonstrations are peaceful.