May Day – German Holiday

Streamers on a birch tree for May Day in Germany

In the usually quiet German countryside, when mowing the lawn too early in the morning is severely frowned upon and silence is platinum, there is a sweet tradition on May 1st of each year that will wake you from your dreams with techno blasts from John Deere tractors.

It may sound odd, but then, this is the German countryside and Deutche youth make any tradition go techo-loud and Bitburger-crazy.

May First is two things – first, it’s German Labor Day, a day off for most people which is great because many are hung over that morning from the parties the night before.  Second it’s an old-fashioned mating ritual that involves beer and uglified trees.

Young men (teenage boys) chop down birch trees, decorate them with streamers, then attach them to the homes of the girls they like.  Some will buy huge crepe paper hearts instead from florists.  Some will do both just to make sure the lucky girl gets the hint.

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The tractor is full of branches for the young punks who kept me awake most of the night. Similar tractors have flat beds with walls for the guys to hang out in and drink.

The Hour:  My first year in Germany my mom awoke jetlagged to the sounds of drum beats at 1am and wondered why my alarm clock was so loud.  That same “alarm” went off 5 more times finally getting quiet after 6am when the sun began to shine enough for me to take this picture.  It begins then, in the horribly early hours when sober men are sleeping, that love-sick boys begin their task of decorating trees with crepe paper streamers and attaching them securely to the homes of the girls they love.  They begin drinking before that, often at parties held in town for the occasion of both holidays.  It’s amazing that with ax-wielding, drunken youth that there aren’t more accidents, but somehow, magically, we all awake on the morning of the 1st with birch trees and hearts adorning the homes of all the young girls in town.  The hearts are somewhat pretty.  The trees, decorated by drunk boys, are generally, not.

The Trees:  Years ago they’d simply find a birch and chop it down.  Now, most likely in response to furious neighbors with missing birch trees, there are small farms where boys can go and pay to chop down and take a tree.  They aren’t small trees either.  Many of these signs of love are over 15′ tall.  Where there isn’t a farm, most suitors can find them in the woods where birch are quite common. 

If you’re out late enough, it won’t be odd to see a large birch tree walking down the side of the road, horizontal, elevated above the ground, with just two sets of legs and no visible bodies.   Or, you may see a boy carrying his tree Paul Bunyan style down the street at 5am with his friends trailing behind carrying a ladders and rope.  The guys have fun with this.  It’s a group project and they get creative.  I’ve seen some trees sitting in the top of chimneys, some tied to pipes on the side of the house, some up on the top floor, some sitting on the ground, and some tied to other trees making them look like they were also planted.  They’re all big and garishly decorated with streamers.  (Boy + Beer DOES NOT EQUAL artistic ability)

NOTE:  Bring in your BBQ’s, potted plants, and anything else not nailed down that could run off in a John Deere tractor.

The Hearts:  The traditional hearts began when boys formed them with smaller tree branches presenting them on the doorstep of the lady they were pursuing.  Now florists make large floral hearts from crepe paper in all colors with streamers to sell with the initial or name of the girl on them.  They’re usually covered in plastic to protect them from the elements. 
 
Twu Wuv:  Tante Tinny, my 86-year-old neighbor, told me that her husband put a 15′ tree on top of her house on May Day when she was only 16. Older than her, he was conscripted into the army during the war, so they dated long distance while he was fighting.  He came back when she was 22 and they got married.  She winks and credits the tree.

The Girls:  Girls used to guard the trees that their boyfriends left so that another boy wouldn’t steal it and put up his own. That would mean that she would “belong” to that second boy for the day at least. Now, according to a friend, it’s possible for several boys to leave an object of affection so that popular girls like her daughter may have several trees and hearts on her house.  The Mom is then expected to get up early and cook breakfast for all her daughter’s admirers.  (That is SO not happening in my house.)

In Town:  Geilenkirchen, Gangelt and other towns will put up May Poles with the shields of the smaller villages that surround them.  They usually have trees or wreaths attached and crepe paper streamers. These, like the trees and hearts themselves, often stay up for the entire month of May, rain or shine, as the streamers get soaked and dried and shabby looking.  As crazy as the Germans are about keeping perfectly clean windows and sidewalks, they don’t seem to mind the mangled May Day decorations lasting often into June.  (I just don’t get that.)

May Pole:  Geilenkirchen, Germany
May Pole in Cochem, Germany along the Mosel River

The Parties:  The party in Geilenkirchen is usually a lot of fun and well done.  There’s a live band, usually quite talented that plays a good mix of American and German music.  The food is great, and, of course, there’s beer.

The streets will be filled with all ages from 10 year-old kids out with friends to people in their 70’s relaxing at a cafe.  They all celebrate together without division, the young partying alongside the old.  Though you can hear the music all over town, for a small fee of about 3 Euros, you can enter the party area, get nearer the stage to dance, and enjoy all the food and beer served inside the party area.  It will be loud and crowded.

Bratkartofeln are tiny round potatoes cooked with bacon and onions (my favorite).  There’s also the usual array of meats.

Party Caveates:  These parties get crowded – the kind of crowded where you really have to push your way to get anywhere and, if you’re new to Europe, you have to remind yourself that different rules apply here.  Personal space is not the same and an elbow or shove isn’t an attack. It is still fun, but you have to relax a bit and be both patient and gently pushy at the same time.

Sadly, the abuse of alcohol and drugs is becoming all too common.  I saw a group of boys not older than 12 drinking publicly each with his own 1-2 six-packs by his side.  It isn’t strange to see a farm truck go by with 20 drunk boys, loud music,  and a spinning party ball. Some villages are cracking down, but it’s a prevalent problem and will take a while to fix.

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May Day is a local thing that means most to the young girls who awake with surprises on their roofs.   Even in the tiny country villages there will be noise.  Basically, if there’s a young girl in the village, there will be noise.  Don’t worry.  Just enjoy the party, and may be, if you drink enough German beer, you won’t notice the techno-blasting each hour of the night and you’ll awake peacefully in the morning to the sight of birch trees and hearts.

One Response to “May Day – German Holiday”

  1. Anonymous April 24, 2012 3:48 pm #

    Great article!

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