The Customs and Politics of the Month of May
Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Knospen sprangen,
Da ist in meinem Herzen
die Liebe aufgegangen.
Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Vögel sangen,
Da hab, ich ihr gestanden
mein Sehnen und Verlangen.
Excerpt from A Poet's Love by Heinrich Heine (1779-1856)
|In the wondrous month of May,|
When all buds were bursting into bloom,
Then it was that in my heart
love began to blossom.
In the wondrous month of May,
When all birds were singing,
Then it was I confessed to her
my longing and desire.
Translation by Richard Stokes, The Book of Lieder
These stanzas express all the romantic feelings Germans associate with the month of May. Nature reawakens with a vengeance in May after a long dark winter. The trees turn green and many flowers and trees blossom in May. The metaphor of blossoming nature also carries over to love. In many poems and songs, May is heralded as the month of love, and it has become one of the most favorite months for weddings.
In many regions of Germany, people still throw May festivals to celebrate the end of the cold season and the start of the warm months. Traditional festivals include customs such as lighting bonfires, staging parades, setting up and decorating maypoles, “dancing into May,” and selecting a May king and queen.
May customs in their current form are only a few hundred years old and vary from region to region, sometimes even from village to village. Spring festivals, however, already existed in pre-Christian times. The Celts and Romans celebrated the fertility and strength of the earth. Among the Franconians, May 1 was a day for the knights to stage tournaments and jousting games since the 8th century, and festive processions decorated with verdant greenery and foliage have been known to take place since the 13th century.
It all begins in the night from April 30 to May 1, also known as Walpurgis Night. People believed that witches met and held an enormous celebration on Mt. Brocken, the highest summit of the Harz Mountain Range. To protect house and home against witches and evil spirits, people would build what was called a witches’ or May bonfire and dance around it.
Other means of protecting against witches’ pranks included hiding brooms, cracking whips and banging on drums, setting out May bushes, and drawing white crucifixes on doorways. Although belief in witches and evil spirits has faded, the tradition of the witching hour persists in folklore and folk festivals. These celebrations on the Brocken, which is located in eastern Germany, have become a major tourist attraction since reunification.
Maypoles and Wreaths
If you travel to Germany in the month of May, you may notice poles decorated with colorful ribbons, wreathes or guild crests. They are what are known as maypoles, which can be either large poles located on the village square or, often, smaller ones located near private homes. They are almost always made from birch wood, but, for the taller ones, spruce is also used. In some regions, the villagers gather and sing and dance under the large maypole or weave the ribbons fastened at the top into a pattern.
The local associations are in charge of erecting and decorating maypoles. The small poles placed out near private homes are erected by young townsmen in honor of an unmarried girl living there. She can be the girlfriend, fiancé, or beloved of the young man, or she can be a girl whom he won only for the month of May at an “auction” held by the village bachelors’ club. In some regions, the maypoles must be guarded to prevent them from being stolen by the young men of the neighboring villages. Some bachelors’ clubs set rules for the couples which they must observe in the period between the auction and the May festival. If the rules are broken, a penalty must be paid.
The auctioning of the May brides takes place during Mardi Gras or the Easter season. The custom is widespread primarily in the Rhine region and has been practiced there since 1500. The bachelors can bid on any unmarried girl of the village whose name has been called out at the auction. The one who submits the highest bid for a girl becomes the May king. The auctioned girl becomes his queen. The two are promenaded through the village in a festive parade on May 1 or Pentecost.
In other regions, the May king and queen are selected by other means. In Bavaria, the young men climb the maypole, which has been polished and sometimes covered with soap, in what is called the “maypole scramble.” Whoever reaches the highest point is elected May king and may select his queen.
As an expression of Catholic popular piety, May processions are often associated with the Saint George or other pilgrimages.
Hundreds – sometimes thousands - of horsemen proceed through the fields and meadows riding on ornately decorated horses to ask God’s blessing of man and beast.
Now that we have talked so much about celebrating, we would be remiss if we did not reveal the recipe for the ideal beverage to celebrate warm May evenings in the company of friends.
The main ingredient in May punch is “waldmeister,” or sweet woodruff, which blossoms in May and is therefore also called “May kraut.” Sweet woodruff contains cumarin, which gives it its notable scent. However, you should be careful to use only the young shoots of the woodruff that have not yet blossomed.
A link to the recipe for May punch may be found in the right-hand column.
May 1 as a Political Holiday
May 1, also called Labor Day, is a legal holiday in Germany and in many countries and originally dates back to the labor movement. It was first proposed as a holiday by the organization Socialist International on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution and in remembrance of the Haymarket Riot by American workers in Chicago (1886) and has been celebrated since 1890.
In the ensuing period, the holiday has been validated time and again by various German governments and even by the Allied Control Council following World War II. After the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany, the individual German states each made May 1 an official holiday.
On that day, workers meet at rallies organized by the unions in the major cities to draw attention to their social plight and to stress their calls for social justice and improvement in working conditions. This year, against the backdrop of the global economic crisis, the theme of the May rallies was “work for all at fair wages.”
Interest in these rallies has, however, waned in recent years, as the situation of workers in Germany has largely improved and the number of blue-collar workers as a percentage of the German workforce has shrunk. Now, the day is used mainly for family excursions or to participate in May festivals.