Germany Holidays: The village maypole

Giant village maypoles are a popular tradition, particularly in southern Germany.

The traveller to Germany who arrives in early spring will witness a village tradition which is both colourful and surprisingly exempt from the usual health and safety rules and regulations: the erection of the village maypole. And even those who arrive later may still see the giant pole in situ in the village square, although its once-glittering decorations may be looking a bit weary by then.

The pole is usually a very tall treetrunk denuded of its branches, and it is installed by the villagers on the eve of 1st May, to remain in place for at least a month. The process is very much do-it-yourself, and usually orchestrated by a farmer with a tractor, but the business of actually getting the pole to the vertical is the business of the menfolk of the village, using a Lilliputian selection of long sticks and ropes.  The process is usually helped by lots of shouting, and the provision of Bratwurst and beer, and once the pole is up, its bottom section bedded into a deep hole in the ground, it is decorated with tinsel and garlands and often with the symbols of local crafts and guilds.

Surprisingly exempt from health and safety regulations

The pole then becomes the centrepiece of a village or town fete which takes place on 30th April or 1st May, the ‘Tanz in den Mai’, with all-night dancing and drinking.  It’s a real celebration of spring, and southern communities approach it with enthusiasm.

The maypole’s part in village life doesn’t stop there, because maypole climbing (Maibaum kraxeln) competitions follow the May festival, all over the country. Young men climb the tree to a certain height and ring a bell, whereupon their climbing time is stopped, or else they climb all the way to the top to retrieve a bunch of sausages. The competition is accompanied by (you guessed it) excessive eating and drinking.

Not all maypoles are huge and public, for there’s also a tradition of private poling, where a young man puts a maypole with a love symbol (heart, initials carved in the wood, etc) into the front garden of his beloved. It stays there for a month. If she wants, she can then invite him for a meal.

There’s also a ritual of good-natured maypole theft during the night of 30th April/1st May. Rivals attempt to steal any reasonably portable maypole, despite the fact that most will be specifically guarded against such an eventuality. There are differing local rules:  guards can be coaxed away, guards must have/must not have a hand on maypole all night, etc. Once the maypole is stolen, it has to be released against a forfeit, which is usually some kind of alcoholic refreshment.

And then there’s other frivolities, such as how many people can you have hanging off one maypole at any one time. The record is held by a village in Austria, which also has the maypole tradition, and currently stands at 34. With that many people up there, you’d have to hope that the tree was sturdy, and the farmer who supervised its installation hadn’t had too much pilsener before making sure the job was properly done.

Passau is well-known for Maibaum parties.

Looking for more? See other destinations in Southern Germany

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