In Germany, 1 May is celebrated as the end of the cold season to welcome spring. Plenty of colourful traditions attract people to leave their houses and enjoy the outdoors. The holiday also bears a political meaning: labour unions commemorate the workers’ movement that was established in the 17th century by organising demonstrations across the country. It is therefore also known as Labour Day in Germany.
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 a little maypole as a proof of love in front of the house of their beloved maid. 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.
May Ball/ Dance into May
On the eve before 1 May people are having dance events in German villages and towns. This so called “Dance into May” (Tanz in den Mai) not only allows folkloric music but is more commonly held in clubs with hiphop, electronic and house music. Originally this festival was attentively watched by the village community as future couples were getting to know each other.
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 therefore perfect for celebrating the beginning of spring.
Riots on Labour Day
Nowadays workers still demonstrate for their rights and better conditions of employment on 1 May. This offers the opportunity to bring topics concerning labour market to people’s attention. For most parts the demonstrations are peaceful, unfortunately there have been riots in certain parts of Berlin.