On April 30th, my husband and I decided to go out to dinner to celebrate my birthday. We arrived in Grafenwoehr a bit too early and none of the restaurants were open yet, so we strolled down to the town square for an ice cream appetizer. And that’s when we learned that the Maypole celebration is alive and well in Bavaria.
Of course, we’ve seen the festival poles in every village square in the quaint and beautiful towns of southern Germany where we currently live. But we had never before witnessed how they got there. As we licked our cones, we noticed an awful lot of people seemed to be wearing lederhosen and dirndls and as a crowd gathered in the square, we wandered over to see what all the fuss was about. A tractor soon arrived, pulling an enormously long pole, painted in a blue and white spiral—the colors of Bavaria.
My husband caught sight of the garrison commander and brought me over to introduce me to him. The commander explained they were getting ready to raise the Maypole and invited us to tag along. Just then, the band struck up a rousing march and we found ourselves swept up in a parade with people watching from their windows and balconies. I was having a Ferris Bueller moment, and I couldn’t keep the huge grin off my face as I waved to folks on the sidelines and chuckled to myself. When I left the house, I never imagined I’d be marching in a parade as part of my birthday celebration.
Giant chopsticks—a time-honored tradition
A ten-minute march across the cobblestones brought us to the parkplatz where the pole, called a Maibaum, was to be erected. I’d been wondering how the massive thing would be raised and I soon found out they used a lot of teamwork and a series of giant chopsticks to hoist the Maypole in the traditional way. Really, the only concessions to modern means was a winch on the front of the fire truck that simply prevented the thing from falling down and smashing the Bavarian muscle men who raised the 100-foot pole.
The whole process took almost forty-five minutes of huffing and puffing and coordinated effort as the sets of giant chopsticks were advanced along the pole. It felt like quite an accomplishment once the towering pole rose into place and everyone cheered.
So, what’s it all about? What does the Maypole signify and why do Bavarians and other Old-World villagers carry on the tradition? I’ll tell you what they told me.
Why they raise the Maypole
According to German folklore, witches, demons, and all manner of evil spirits gathered to revel on April 30th, known as Walpurgisnacht. The villagers built giant bonfires and danced to scare off the spirits and keep the witches at bay.
Raising the Maypole also signified a renewal, springtime, and a rite of fertility. Originally, a live tree was used and even today the evergreen top of the tree is preserved as a symbol of rebirth.
In the old way, the tree represented masculine energy and the wreaths and ribbons surrounding it represented the feminine aspect. Together, they promise new life.
Walpurgisnacht is also linked with even older May Day traditions of northern Europe, such as the Gaelic festival of Beltane.
German tradition from an American viewpoint
I came across an interesting post and video on the topic, made by an American and shot in Altendorf, a small town neighboring my own Bavarian village. Here’s the link, if you’d like to learn more and see how the pole is raised:
How about you? Have you attended a May Day festival? Tell us about it in the comments.