The 1 May is a special day in Germany — and not only because it’s a national holiday (Tag der Arbeit, literally Labour day) that is reserved for demonstrations for worker’s rights. There are many colourful traditions surrounding that day: In rural areas, giant maypoles are erected on town squares. In the Rhineland, young people put up birch trees in frontyards as an expression of love — and you can be sure that a lot of Germans will dance the night away to celebrate the arrival of spring.
Erecting the Maypole
On the eve of 1 May so called maypoles are erected on town squares all over Germany. The tradition goes back to the 16th Century and the tree symbolises fertility. In many towns, the maypole consists of a tall trunk with a birch tree and a wreath on top. The Maypole is decorated with regional symbols and colourful ribbons. 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.
A Birch tree for the Loved One
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. In the Rhineland region, especially in Cologne and Bonn, this tradition is still very much alive. On the last night of April, young people meet up to help each other carrying the birch trees around the city and putting them up. The trees are decorated with ribbons and, very importantly, with a red heart that reveals the name of the loved one. On 31 May the trees will be removed from the house of the recipient. Traditionally, their mother bakes a cake and the father buys a crate of beer for the admirer. In leap years, the girls have their go in putting up the birch trees.
Dance into May
On the last evening of April there are dance events in almost every city and village all over Germany. At a traditional “Tanz in den Mai” (Dance into May), people wear traditional attire or 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. Nowadays, there are various ways of meeting someone that night: clubs and bars will definitely be more crowded than average as well.
The night of 30 April is called “Walpurgisnacht” (Walpurgis night). The name refers to Saint Walpurga, an English missionary turned nun who lived in the 8th century. The name 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, many dressed up as witches or devils.
In some areas, couples jump over the fire holding hands, which is traditionally called “Maisprung” (May jump). In some regions, children traditionally play pranks on their neighbours, for example by hiding their possessions or decorating cars with toilet paper.
The German “Maiwein”, also called “Maibowle” or “Maitrank”, traditionally contains white wine, sugar and herb sweet woodruff syrup, known as “Waldmeister” in Germany. To add a fruity note, strawberries or limes are added to the drink. May Wine tastes light and fresh and is therefore perfect for celebrating the beginning of spring.
Riots on Labour Day
The 1 May has a political significance as well. All over the country, 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.