By Courtney Hall
As the German saying goes, Alles neu macht der Mai. Translated it means, “May makes everything new.” In Germany, May Day is more than simply a holiday.
While everyone does have the day off from work and school it is also significant because it’s a day to crusade for and celebrate worker’s rights. Many unions host public speeches, marches and meetings on this day, especially those in and around the Berlin area. May Day is also a time to frighten away winter spirits and welcome spring, as it is seen throughout Europe as the birthday of nature.
Many towns have parades and festivals to accompany the crowning of the May Queen, who can declare winter officially over and begin spring with a dance. This celebration also includes the planting of young trees throughout the town, as a sign of goodwill and respect for nature.
The festivities for this day though actually begin the night before. April 30 is known as Walpurgisnacht (Witches Night). People use to believe this was the night when witches gathered and summoned great magic. Legend has it that the witches congregate every year on this night on the highest peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany to meet with Satan.
To deter witches from coming too close to their towns, people lit large bonfires and danced wildly around them. To this day, people still gather to light bonfires in their towns, though now they simply enjoy each other’s company, food, and beer with an occasional dance. In some towns these bonfires include a contest of their own. Many towns light the Maifeuer (bonfire) and make a game of jumping over it. In other regions, the Maifeuer will have a stick figure of witches atop it to ward off magical evil-doers.
Pranks by young people are expected and many folk prepare for this by bringing in garbage cans, porch rugs, and anything movable from their yards. One of my German friends talks fondly of a year when she and her friends gathered every welcome mat from their village and stuffed them all into the town’s phone booth. The next day everyone had to gather and sort through to find which were theirs. In the town neighboring ours, the teens were a bit more elaborate with their prank and proceeded to take down all of the sculptures in the town’s roundabout. Each sculpture was of a young child in different poses of play. The teens replaced these with sculptures of adults in varying sexual positions.
May Day begins, especially those in the Bavarian areas of Germany, with people dressing in their finest traditional wear and raising and decorating the town’s May pole. This occasion is usually followed with bratwursts and the delicious Maibock beer brewed specially for this occasion. Most towns also have a brass band which accompanies the festivities with music and dancing well into the night.
Typically, the town’s May pole is a tree, stripped of all it’s branches except for the ones at the top. It’s then polished down so the trunk is smooth. Traditionally the May pole is decorated with a wreath and ribbons. Many towns have a climbing contest to see which man can climb up the pole fastest. To make matters more interesting, the pole is first soaped down. Keep in mind most of the trees selected to be May poles average around 46 feet tall. In order to maintain grip, contestants either smear ash, sap, or pitch on their hands. Another thing one can do on Walpurgisnacht is steal the neighboring town’s May pole and hold it for ransom–typically a few kegs of beer–but then one must also be sure their town’s May pole is not stolen. In 2004, one clever town actually used a helicopter to steal the neighboring town’s May pole.
A more romantic tradition is the Maastricht (May line) which involves drawing a line of chalk from one lover’s home to the other’s. Sometimes May lines will cross through towns in order to get from home to home. It is the most perfect way to reveal your crush. If a young man doesn’t fancy using chalk to win over his crush, another tradition is for the man to cut down a young tree and place it in his crush’s yard with decorations and her name on it.