A sapling for May
It must be said, that when the maypole is finally up it has a pretty stately presence: slender, tall, painted with blue and white stripes, and adorned with wreaths, ribbons and pennants of all kinds. But to wrangle one of these 30-meter-high Bavarian beauties into position takes at least 20 men, countless ropes and cables, support beams and usually a tractor. It is a strenuous occasion that can appear a bit odd to outsiders, but the maypole tradition is typically accompanied by a buzzing celebration that is deeply entrenched in many regions of Germany.
The village icon
“The world can fall to pieces, but the maypole must be raised!” The Dürnnhaar Burschenverein's motto typifies the impressive symbol that is the maypole, even in 2012, and the enthusiasm is not limited to just Bavaria, Franconia and Baden-Württemberg, where the tradition is most prevalent. Even Hessen and East Freisland have their own associations and maypole clubs that ring in the merry month of May every year with beer, brass bands and dancing.
Preparations for the festivities of course begin weeks before the big day. Getting the maypole from the forest and ready for the town square is a particularly complex operation and includes careful selection, expert skills felling the tree, artful painting and decoration, and delicate carpentry work. When it comes to the maypole, there are no limits regarding efforts and costs. Taller, more beautiful, more colorful is the concept. The competition with neighboring towns to put up the most attractive maypole has even become a newsworthy aspect of the tradition for local papers. After all, the maypole is a symbol of a village's affluence and confidence, which has inspired another tradition as well: stealing a neighboring town's maypole before it is erected. To prevent this from happening, the local boys often have to hold watch for nights on end. When it does happen, however, the victims are expected to arrive in the neighboring town not only terribly humbled but also with the agreed upon barrels of beer to pay the ransom for their maypole.
My friend the tree
We hear sayings like “you never replant an old tree” or “he's as big as a tree” all the time, and they are proof that humans have a meaningful relationship with these majestic creatures. Just a quick look at literature shows us just how ancient the cult of the tree really is. The original Germanic peoples were apparently of the opinion that every tree contained a soul. As a result, they gave their green friends names. For newborns they planted a tree of life while the dead were interred in sarcophagi made of tree bark. To cut down a tree without a specific purpose was taboo. The ultimate expression of Germanic tree worship was to celebrate the marriage of earth goddess Freyja and the heavenly god Wotan by decorating a tree in colorful ribbons or flowers. And on the first of May a young birch was planted as a dedication to the pagan gods in exchange for fertile fields.
Love and the maypole
Despite proof of a direct connection, pagan maypole traditions seem to have solidified their spot in European life despite the rampant Christianization of the Middle Ages. Historians differ in their opinions where the customs were first revived. What seems clear, however, is that although the maypole in its present form suggests a rural flair, it most likely has its origins in cities. Mention was made of a tree being erected in Aachen in 1224, for example, but it is unclear in that case whether it was a maypole in the current sense of the tradition. At the beginning of the 17th century it was mostly soldiers who paid homage to officers, mayors or even doctors with a sapling tree, thus institutionalizing the custom.
Birch trees were in demand at that time, with their lush green leaves and black-and-white trunks. Such large numbers of them were cleared, in fact, that an official order in Württemberg in 1614 denounced the “disorderly felling of trees and the cutting of switches in birch forests”. In some places it was even forbidden. The rule made it more difficult for young men looking forward to the first of May, when they could playfully express their feelings for a “Liebesmaien” (adored girl) with colorfully adorned birch branches or boughs by placing them on her parent's roof or on the shutters outside her room. These days that sort of courtship is not quite as common, but there is no denying the romanticism of it. And if his affections were reciprocated, his reward was a homemade dinner and even a kiss from the girl. The “Schandemaier” (shamed girls), on the other hand, wake up on the morning of May 1 to either a broom or some sticks with rags, not so subtle hints that they need to perhaps rethink their reputations among the men in town.
The maypole suffered an image setback of its own during one of the darker moments of German history, when the National Socialists aggressively propagandized the tradition in order to unify the nation. The custom then disappeared in 1945, along with the Third Reich, before being revived in the 1970s as part of a movement to rekindle old folklore and traditions. Local government and associations now cultivate that heritage with the respect and consideration that this symbol of efflorescent nature deserves.
lives as a freelance writer in Munich.
Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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