Unusual 1st May Traditions Only Germans Will Understand

Maibaum (May Tree), a German tradition
Maibaum (May Tree), a German tradition | © Awaya Legends / Flickr
Megan King

Every year on Erster Mai, Germany erupts into a carnival of chaos – and, in some areas, a showdown of police uniforms against varying degrees of civil disobedience – in what has come to be known as the May Day celebrations. From stealing trees to three-day parties and securing a dance with the devil, here are some cornerstone occurrences of the day that might not make sense to the outside world.

Dance into May

Germany loves to party, and May 1 is the perfect occasion. So perfect, in fact, that the party usually starts well before May Day, on April 30, in a tradition known as ‘dancing into May’, or Tanz in den Mai. This is a tradition practiced in both small towns and big cities, happening across every bar, club and event in one way or another.

The party starts on the eve of May 1

Erecting the Maibaum (May Tree)

In areas such as Bavaria and Lower Saxony, residents still honour this day with a ritual that is reminiscent of pagan times. Similar to the maypole of Anglo traditions, locals dress up in traditional garb, decorate a large pole with all manner of colourful streamers, brew their own beer and play merry music. Perhaps the best part of this tradition is how each community then tries to steal one another’s trees. Towns must go to great measures to safeguard their totems, or risk paying their mischievous neighbours a ransom, that is usually made up of a whole bunch of beer and sausages.

A May Day tree

Party protest or protest party?

Depending on who you are and where you come from, May 1 in Germany will either be just another excuse to party, an opportunity to sell drinks to thirsty crowds or to retain its original meaning, as an ode to the working class and eternal struggle against oppression. If you find yourself in the German capital at this time, the centre of the storm is none other than Kreuzberg, where marches are organised and the streets become dance floors flooded with people, parties and smashed glass. To the ignorant eye, it might not be obvious that all this debauchery actually has its roots in Berlin’s political scene, as May 1 marks Germany’s Labour Day (Tag der Arbeit).

Witches Night

Known as Hexennacht, May 1 happens to coincide with the night that witches used to meet in the peaks of the Harz Mountains to enjoy a dalliance with the devil, according to German folklore. If you’re in the Harz area on this day, look out for (and join in with) the women who dress up, warts and all, to go and dance and cackle on the mountaintops.

The night the witches of Harz gather to dance

Finally professing your love

So you’ve had a crush on a special someone for weeks, months (years?!) and still haven’t plucked up the nerve to tell them? Well, May 1 in Germany is your chance. This confessionary tradition is known as Maistrich, or May Line, and is about drawing a line between your house and the house of your dream lover with chalk, signing off your name and hopefully a chance of reciprocation.

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