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Hoisting the Maypole – A Bavarian Tradition
One of the great things about living in Germany is that we get to experience some of the traditions that would be difficult to plan as a traveler. There are so many very date specific events on the calendar, all year round, that scheduling the best time to visit to attend these events is difficult. That being said, we’ve lived in Germany off and on for the 11 years now and we have never been to a hoisting of the Maypole. Until now, that is. We found out on Friday that our little city of Weiden (population 42,000) was having their annual Maibaum celebration this past Sunday, May 1st, of course. There had been no advertising for the event, it was merely an entry on the city’s official website calendar.
Sunday morning came and the town was as un-bustling as any other Sunday. Our apartment is right downtown and our terrace overlooks one of the main parking lots. We had read the Maypole would be lifted at 2:00 P.M. so with the parking lot still empty at 1:30 we left for the short walk with uncertainty. Had we read the post correctly? Was the event really taking place where we thought it was, in the market square about 5 minutes walk from our house? As we got closer to the beautiful medieval town hall we could begin to hear snatches of noise and music and our hopes lifted.
We came around the final corner into the Marktplatz and there the fest tables and benches, lined up in neat, compact rows waiting to fill up with jolly beer drinking townsfolk. The bands hadn’t started playing yet, but the grill was smoking and the beer was beginning to flow. People were trickling into the square a few at a time. We grabbed a wurst and a hefty liter mug of Maibock beer and claimed a seat to await the Maibaum.
I suppose a little background is called for here for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Maypole tradition. Raising the Maypole on the first day of May in celebration of the beginning of spring goes back to the 13th century in Bavaria. It seems like every city, town or village has their own Maypole that gets raised anew each year. The pole can be plain, unpainted wood, or more decoratively painted in the blue and white colors of Bavaria, but each will have signs and decorations representing the different trades, guilds, and, in the case of Weiden, famous hometown heroes. A small bit of the actual tree growth is left sprouting out the very top of the pole and wreaths and ribbons are hung to further liven up the Maibaum.
Every Maypole is in danger of being stolen and held for ransom by rival towns in the region. And I imagine our own group of ne’er-do-wells was plotting and scheming to steal the neighbor towns pole. A successful raid can result in a hefty ransom of beer and food for the skillful group able to pull of the heist of a Maibaum. And what shame for the poor town to lose their pole! At last, our Maypole came into the square under the watchful eyes of the young men and women who had been guarding the pole for the past several days while it was being prepared for the hoisting.
After some brass band music, dancing, eating and drinking, it was time to hoist the Maypole. In years past, this was a tedious, sweaty job that involved much straining and back work. Today, however, the job was done with the help of a massive crane that lifted the tree off the truck and swung it into place. There was still some grunting and cursing as the small team of Maibaum experts “planted” the massive pole in the ground in the middle of town.
Once the Maibaum had been hoisted and was swaying gently in the wind the music and dancing really ramped up. There were two small bandstands set up at either end of the platz and the two bands worked back and forth to keep the celebration going. Eventually one of the bands packed up and left, leaving the stage available for the town’s dancing clubs to show of their talents. Dressed in traditional outfits of dirndl and lederhosen, the folk groups took the stage and whirled, clapped, stamped and danced to the merriment of the now very bustling crowd.
Then, the moment we had been waiting for, the dancers circled the Maypole and danced the Maibaum dance wrapping the base of the pole with the blue and white ribbons as they stepped through an intricate series of moves and twirls.
By the time the Maypole dance began, most of the fest goers were deep into their mugs of beer and continued to party away while the dancers danced. The whole afternoon felt to me as if the town had just dressed up and come out to sing, dance, and celebrate for themselves; this wasn’t put on for tourists or visitors, though we certainly felt welcome and part of the event. It was a magical afternoon that I hope we managed to capture through our video.
Chances are, if you’ve been to Germany, you came to experience Oktoberfest in the fall. That’s certainly a good reason to visit Deutschland, but having done that, you really should consider visiting in other parts of the year, too. Why not spring? Plan your next trip to coincide around the festive Maibaum celebrations and enjoy gorgeous weather, flowering gardens, and everything springtime in Germany has to offer!
For some of the many Maibaum fest times and places check the official Bavaria tourism website.
Have you ever attended or participated in a May Pole celebration?
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