Tanz in den Mai!

No other day of the year has such long-reaching roots in the most random smattering of traditions as May 1st.  It is also one of my favorite topics to talk about and teach about because the first of May is so multifaceted: it’s part demonstration, part witch hunt, part pagan ritual, part gathering, part outdoor activity and part beer drinking. (These are a few of my favorite things…)  Doing any research on May 1st yields results ranging from topics like art and literature, hiking, saints, fires and explosions.  Do I have your attention?

Let’s start at the beginning.  The Celts (who lived all over continental Europe before heading up to Ireland) and the Germanic tribes were among those celebrated four main holidays every year.  These are called the quarter days, because they happen every 3 months.  One of them was Beltane, or Walpurgisnacht, on April 30/May 1. This holiday is a celebration of fertility and the holiday was observed with bonfires and other activities of the typically nocturnal nature.  This went on for hundreds of years, and is still observed by a handful of people today.  Fast-forward to the Christianization of Europe.  The early church meshed many symbols and dates of pagan holidays with the new Christian holidays.  That’s why Christians celebrate Easter with eggs and rabbits (pagan fertility symbols) and why Christmas happens in the winter, even though Jesus was supposedly born in the spring (The most important pagan celebration was for the winter solstice).  Overlaying new ideas onto old traditions made it easier to convert people.  As my former department chair once put it, it’s easier to have a party if your neighbors are partying too.

Christianity took root in Europe, but not right away.  One problem was that some people were still gathering and getting busy around bonfires on April  30… What to do, what to do?  The church recast the pagans as witches and their gathering as a witches’ sabbath.  It was the 9th century, after all.  This kind of thing was standard practice.  Now all they needed to do was get rid of the witches.  The abbess Walburga, for whom Walpurgisnacht is named, drove the witches off of the Brocken, a mountain in the Harz range.  The church later canonized her, and May 1 is still her day in many countries.  Victory!

Although Walburga had driven the witches away, fear of their return lingered.  Many claimed to see the witches on the Brocken peak, which is actually an optical illusion now called the Brocken Spectre.  The rumored witches gatherings even inspired many artists and writers, like Goethe and Shakespeare.  In order to keep the witches at bay, people went through town all night on April 30, making noise to scare off any vengeful hags.  I’m sure you can imagine how this evolved: everyone in town got together, got loud and drank all night long.  Since everyone was one edge (read: drunk),  April 30 was also good for pranks.  Sounds like spooky fun, right?  Later, somehow, the idea of the Maypole, or Maibaum, developed.  A Maypole is a tall pole, often a pine tree stripped of its branches, which is decorated with ribbons.  A town or guild would erect a Maypole, and then the townsmen would stand guard all night.  As a prank, one town or guild would try to steal another’s Maypole.  The next day, May 1, everyone gathers together around the Maypole to dance, sing and welcome spring.  (See photos of a Maypole here.)

Today, the May Day focus is mostly on welcoming spring.  May Day is a day to be with friends and family outside.  “Being outside” usually means doing a Maitour, either by hiking or biking.  When hiking, one needs a Bollerwagen for beverage transportation.  A Bollerwagen is essentially a little red wagon with all-terrain tires.  (Hey, I can’t be expected to hike AND carry glass bottles.)  For those doing a bike ride, a small trailer can do the trick, or your group can just stop at bars along the way.  All in all, the Maitour is good, clean, family fun.

Interesting factoid: We used to celebrate May Day in the US by hanging flowers on the doorknobs of friends’ and neighbors’ houses.  If you don’t believe me, read the book “A Time to Keep” by Tasha Tudor.  The illustrations are beautiful, and it was a childhood favorite.  (Actually, the fact that this book exists and that I could read it to my own child is one of the only things that makes parenting seem like an appealing option for me.  Of course, in addition to the reading, I would also have to feed, bathe and otherwise nurture it, so maybe not.  Good thing my nieces and nephews are numerous and adorable.  But I digress.)  It’s not hard to see why we quit celebrating May Day; leaving flowers for your neighbors isn’t much fun, not to mention prohibitively expensive.  Also, during our westward expansion, some people just didn’t have neighbors.  Or doorknobs.

You might be wondering how people with jobs have time for all of this May Day business.  May 1st is also a public holiday in Germany… and everywhere else in the world except the US and Canada.  May 1 is Germany’s Labor Day.  On May 1, 1886, workers in Chicago went on strike to demand an 8-hour work day.  The whole thing turned ugly when there was an explosion and the police fired into the crowd.  To commemorate the event, May 1 was declared Labor Day.  Later, president Grover Cleveland changed the date in the US.  Now everyone else officially observes an event from American history except for the United States.  In Europe, there are always labor demonstrations.  In Germany, Berlin is the place to go to get your protest on.  (I hear Kreuzberg is the epicenter, but I have no firsthand experience.)  Some folks refer to May Day as International Workers’ Day.  If you’re interested in getting fired up to attend your own demonstration, or you want to understand why so many people are demonstrating, you can read more about it here.

The point of this long and somewhat rambling post is that May 1st has something to offer everyone.  There’s hiking, biking, bonfires, beer, pranks, church services, demonstrations, reading the Scottish play, singing, dancing and wagons.  How did Heidi here celebrate?  My friend, F, and her fiance, uh, F, got married yesterday.  Today, they had a Frühschoppen, or “drinking in the morning but actually all day.”  Afterward, I rode my bike to an acquaintance’s bar for a late afternoon… nap cap?  (If that’s not a word, it should be.  Someone notify the good people at Webster’s.) I hope all of my readers had an enjoyable, relaxing and/or productive day that doesn’t end in needing to be bailed out.

In case anyone is wondering, as some of my previous students did, most Germans are not socialist pagans.  Sometimes it’s just more fun to spend 40 minutes teaching about hiking, witches and protests than it is to teach about verbs, nouns and sentence structure.

Congratulations to F & F!

About heidihefeweizen

I am a 29 year-old American woman who has received a Fulbright scholarship to work as an English teaching assistant in a German high school.
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5 Responses to Tanz in den Mai!

  1. kathleen says:

    Phenomenal post. I feel so enlightened! And also sad that May Day is not a fun holiday here in the States. It’s beautiful here and I would certainly have rather communed with nature (and beer) than sit in my windowless office staring at a computer screen. As I recall, May in Germany is chock full of holidays, what with Pentecost and Ascension day (Christi Himmelfahrt! Always a crowd-pleaser).

    Also, German wedding! I want to hear all about it. Is the tradition there quite similar to ours? Do tell.

    • Oh, I’ve already got big plans for both Pentecost and Ascension; stay tuned. The wedding was actually Monday, and the celebration was Tuesday. It was a really nice, relaxed, picnic-type celebration. I can tell you that the couple feed cake to one another (minus the face smashing), and that when you knock on the edge of your class, they kiss.

  2. Pingback: Old-Timey Tuesday: Deutschland al fresco | the mirthmobile

  3. lemoutonnoir says:

    The French sell these specific flowers on May 1st and everyone is allowed to sell them without declaring any revenue so people grow them in their gardens in anticipation of the day.

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