Marvellous May – A Month of Mayhem & Merriment in Germany
May has arrived bringing with it blossom, birds and brightness. It may be the month with the shortest name yet it is one of the most significant months in the calendar. May may just be one of the happiest and most cheerful months of the year.
Traditionally the change from the unsettled month of April to May in the northern hemisphere was a cause for great celebration. The ancient Romans held a five day festival in honour of Flora, the goddess of flowers. The festivities began with a theatrical performance and concluded, as was often the case, with competitive events. Seeds were scattered, the people danced wearing flowers in their hair and the revellers prayed for a bountiful crop Just as now the event was a welcome holiday from labour for the workers.
In Germany the last night of April has historically been the time when witches rise to celebrate the arrival of spring. The witches are said to dance with the devil on the Brocken mountain, the highest of the Herz mountain range, in north central Germany. Here the spectre of the Brocken is spoken of in folklore as the terrifying sight of a magnified shadow appearing in the clouds high atop the mountain. The haunting tale was so stirring that Bram Stoker even used the idea in the story 'Dracula'.
The evening celebrations are known as Walpurgisnacht named after Saint Walburga. The feast day of Saint Walburga, one of many men credited with bringing Christianity to Germany, is held on the first of May. These days the Walpurgisnachtcelebrations are a little like halloween with people holding bonfires and youngsters playing pranks on one another.
May day is a national holiday in Germany as it is in most European countries. In Berlin and to a lesser extent other areas of the counrty, Mayday is a time for protest. The day was adopted as labour day to highlight workers rights and this is a tradition which continues although much more calmly today. In other areas of Germany May Day is a time to enjoy the spring weather and relax with friends and family.
The maypole - Maibaum is erected on Mayday in towns across the country. It is decorated with brightly coloured ribbons, flowers and scenes showing local crafts. Mayday parades include brass bands and, of course, dark German beer specially brewed for the occasion. Some towns enter into a maibaum stealing competition where they try to steal each others tree. This lighthearted event has seen trees reclaimed by helicopter from the top of mountains where sneaky theives have relocated their spoils.
Another rather lovely tradiition persists to this day which is related to the Maibaum. If a boy has a crush on a girl but hasn't had the courage to tell her then on May day he can leave a small malbaum outside her home. The tree is usually decorated in such a way as to hint at the secret admirer in the hope that love may be aroused.
The first two weekends in May herald the arrival of the fruit wine festival -Baumblütenfest. In recent times it has been reported to be the second largest drinking festival after Oktoberfest. What started in the 19th century as a small way to celebrate the wines of Berlin has grown over time and now the little fishing town of Werder is transformed each year into a bustling, vibrant festival attraction. In excess of 500,000 visitors attend the family friendly festival which is set next to the beautiful blossoming orchards of the area.
Since 1922 the second Sunday of May has become known as Muttertag - Mothers Day. Under the Hitler regime mothers could recieve medals on this day for producing children for the Fatherland. These days the day is about spoiling mums with flowers, choclates and cards.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed a lovely welcome to the month of May (Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling), to the lyrics of the poem "An den Mai" by Christian Adolph Overbeck.
You can listen to it here:
May may truly be the most marvellous month in the German calendar albeit with just a little Walpurgisnacht mayhem thrown in for good measure.