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The unique history of May Day in Germany

The unique history of May Day in Germany

The unique history of May Day in Germany

Depending on whom you ask, May Day in Germany is either an innocent day full of deeply held traditions regarding courtship and the celebration of spring, or a revolutionary day celebrating the accomplishments and might of organised labour. This is no surprise since the holiday as we know it is actually a mash-up of at least two different celebrations, with traditions spanning thousands of years.

Although it is unlikely that coronavirus and the subsequent restrictions on most gatherings will allow for a May Day celebration looking anything like years past, let's use this moment to dive into what these competing May Day visions look like, and what there is to look forward to next year.

The ancient origins of May Day

The concept of May Day as a celebration of rejuvenation and fertility literally dates from the Iron Age. It survived and morphed with the introduction of Christianity, and began to take on some aspects of its current form as early as the Middle Ages.

One of the most iconic and widespread features is the maypole, a large pole or tree usually erected in a town’s central square, decorated with garlands or ribbons, and often danced around. Maypoles first appeared in the British Islands in the 14th century and had migrated to German-speaking areas by the 16th century.

The maypole

Many May Day traditions revolve around the maypole, usually dependent on region. For example, in the Rhineland, young bachelors use the night before May 1 to erect large birch trees in front of the homes of their girlfriends.

In Bavaria, each village erects a maypole weeks in advance, and a competition ensues over who can steal the poles from neighbouring villages. Those who fail to protect their maypole are obliged to invite the thieves over on May 1 for free beer and traditional food.

The Night of the Witches

The night before May 1st is known as Saint Walpurgis Night (Sankt Walpurgisnacht) in Germany, named after the 8th century abbess who battled disease and witchcraft. Of course, the witchcraft part was what really stuck and what gives the night the alternative title of Witches' Night (Hexennacht).

Many places in Germany and around Europe still hold large bonfires meant to ward off witches on this night, although in most areas bonfires have shifted to become an Easter tradition.

The not-so-ancient origins of International Labour Day

May Day has a different meaning altogether to residents of Berlin and many of the larger cities in Germany, and these origins can be traced directly to the Haymarket Affair in the year 1886 and the city of Chicago, of all places.

After a series of escalations at a labour rally resulted in the deaths of multiple police officers and civilians, an international association of socialist and communist organisations called for the observance of International Worker’s Day, upon which workers and their allies would “demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”

Labour Day in Germany

Demonstrations for better working hours, salaries, and working conditions can be seen all over Germany on May 1, but by far the largest and most famous occurs in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. This is probably due to the fact that Berlin had its very own Haymarket Affair on May 1, 1987, when severe rioting and clashes with the police led to scores of injuries and arrests and extensive property damage.

May Day in Kreuzberg nowadays is a much tamer affair, but it still witnesses tens of thousands of revellers and demonstrators alike, packed in such proximity in the district around Kottbusser Tor that public transport to the area is shut down.

Although this is unlikely to happen this year due to coronavirus concerns, it may be that people will find their own way to celebrate May Day at home, and the thousand-year-old tradition will continue to adapt to a new era.

Matt Adomeit

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Matt Adomeit

Matt is a jazz bassist, classical enthusiast, composer, and writer from Hartford, Connecticut. After several years bouncing around between Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin he finally settled in the German capital...

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