Things you wouldn’t know: Tanz in den Mai (“Dance into May”)

I started this series a while back, because as an expat, living in a different country away from home, you encounter a whole lot of things that are just different from what you’re used to. This week it so happened that I have two back-to-back posts about ‘Things you wouldn’t know”. I hope you enjoy those kinds of posts. I am always intrigued by the differences between different cultures and customs. You can find the archives here.

Happy May everybody. Yesterday was a holiday in Germany (don’t you think I should be allowed to observe those? Yeah, me too.). I am not sure what all the traditions and background stories to the May Day festivities are, because there are quite a few. I think it’s our “labor day” and also in the Bundesland (federated state) that I come from, it’s considered the day of “acknowledgement of freedom and peace, social justice, reconciliation between nations and human dignity”. I totally just looked that up (on Wikipedia), but I kinda like it.

Traditionally, the first of May however is celebrated as a spring festival with the custom of putting up a may pole in the center of town and a night of “dancing into May” on April, 30 (and then nursing the hangover on May Day).

May poles can look very different depending on the region. Most poles in the area that I come from look something like this: a very tall pole painted in the local colors and decorated with a big wreath with colorful streamers.

Elmenhorster Maibaum
photo credit: Awaya Legends via Flickr cc

Sometimes there are multiple wreathes in different sizes and sometimes (especially in Bavaria) the poles are decorated with emblems depicting local crafts and industry.

München 2008
photo credit: patrikmloeff via photopin cc

In the Rhineland, where I am from, May 1 is also celebrated by the delivery of a “Maibaum” (a tree or tree branch – usually birch trees – covered in colorful streamers or a heart made out of crepe flowers with the girl’s name or initials) to a girl’s house the night before. It’s usually from an admirer or boyfriend and it’s put on the roof, next to a window or next to the entrance door. You see them all over the city. It’s lovely.

The Maibaum remains in place until the end of the month when the guy who put it up needs to come and get it. Usually he gets some sort of a reward, a case of beer from the girl’s dad and – if he’s not the boyfriend yet – possibly a date with the girl. Those are very loose rules, however. While I mostly got a Maibaum from the same guy (my then-boyfriend), my sister had more admirers and it was fun to figure out who put them up!

Sometimes, after partying, we girls would stay up and try to find out who would come by and put up the Maibaum at our house. It’s a little bit like the Valentine’s tradition here, just with a little bit more effort involved on the guys’ part, cutting tree branches, decorating them, and climbing roof tops and whatnot.

Up High
photo credit: Awaya Legends via Flickr cc

Maibaum FTW!
photo credit: blacktar via Flickr cc

Maibaum tradition
photo credit: lejaclyn via Flickr cc

There is going to be a Maifest (May festival) at the local German Club next weekend. As always, there will be ladies in Dirndl dresses and men in Lederhosen dancing around the may pole. Keeping the stereotypes alive since  1854! Hehe.

If you’re German, are may poles part of your tradition in the area where you grew up?
If you’re not German, have you heard of this tradition or
is there something similar where you live?

  1. Awww, I love the tradition of the Maibaum. There’s nothing like that around here. Although, the neighborhood where we live is historically German and has some pretty sweet German festivals throughout the year, complete with Dirndls and Lederhosen!

  2. Since I am from the same area as you are, I know all what you have described here! Lovely post! Thanks!

  3. In Saarland every town has a Maibaum which people decorate at Hexennacht and then people from the neighbor towns try to cut the tree off over night. So every town has a night watch which basically means that people sit around the tree and get drunk. :)

  4. I had never heard of this tradition! That is so cool! And I like the concept of ‘dancing into May’. We celebrated May Day when I was a child, but it involved leaving may day baskets on someone’s door step, which was a fun tradition!

  5. aw if the festival was on saturday, i could stay and check it out! lol. so fun, and i think may poles can be decorated so beautifully!

  6. I know the tradition from Germany but I don’t know if it give something like that in Switzerland. I remember that we had on the wedding from a teacher (I was around 7) something like a Maibaum. I had a day off on 1st May, but most people have to work then.

  7. Although I am not German, I do now live in Germany, but alas, my part of Germany (Hamburg) does not have May poles nor have I seen any Maibäume. I feel we are missing out.

  8. I would have never thought German traditions would be so romantic! I’ve always had this impressions of Germans as very practical, straight forward, well organized, and to the point, no BS kind of people, but this is so cute, thoughtful and just plain creative! I love the idea of leaving a gift for a girl and then come claim it a month later, leaving them to wonder who the suiter might be. It’s like straight out of a rosy love novel. Lovely!

  9. My home town is Dresden and we never had a tradition like this. But in Saxony (Sachsen) it is very common to burn down Hexenfeuer (witch fires). I think they used to do it to scare away the bad winter ghosts and welcome spring. But I am not really sure why. April 30th is also Walpurgisnacht! :)

  10. I love that the trees get decorated and left by boys – that’s such a fun tradition. I love when you share things like this because I think it’s so, so neat to learn about holidays in other cultures and places.

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