Erster Mai – May Day Celebrations
Around the world the 1st of May is celebrated as a workers holiday. However, in Germany they have their own celebration and tradition to go with the first of May or Erster Mai.
Erster Mai literally translates as the First of May so no prizes for guessing when it occurs! Erster Mai traditions differ from region to region so I’m just going to focus on what people do in the Rhineland during this time, as this is where I am staying. The festivities begin on the night of the 30th April. People used to believe that on this night witches and ghosts would be able to enter our world more easily. They lit bonfires and usually stayed out all night. Young boys would also play pranks on people. In this way it was very similar to Halloween. However, during this night boys decorate birch trees with ribbons and place them in front of the house of a girl who they would like to date/marry.
These decorated trees are known as Maibaum(May Tree). During the night they erect these trees outside the houses of the girl. You see a lot of boys trying to carry these trees through the streets on this day! The goal is to do it without the girl finding out who its from. Its only after a month that the girl finds out who the tree is from. Most people I spoke to who were buying birch trees said that they were not telling the person who they were putting up the Maibaum for that it was from them. Hopefully only one tree is outside her house on the 1st May or things could get awkward! In the Rhineland they add an extra bit of decoration in the form of a card with the girl’s name on it attached to the tree.
However during a leap year girls take on a more prominent role for Erster Mai. During a leap year girls are allowed put up a Maibaum in front of the house of a boy they like. This year happened to be a leap year and many girls took the opportunity to put up a Maibaum all over Bonn.
There are differences in other parts of Germany to Erster Mai. I had heard that in some regions, the boys have to guard the Maibaum all night as other people try to steal it. This isn’t a Rhineland tradition so I didn’t see any of that happening. Overall Erster Mai is a fun, lighthearted way to start the Summer.