Ways to celebrate May Day in Germany

Ways to celebrate May Day in Germany

May Day in Germany is a public holiday that has been celebrated in many forms over the centuries.

May Day began as an ancient festival to welcome the spring weather. Expats and internationals may find novelty and fun as spectators of centuries-old German traditions and rituals involving May trees, Maypoles and bonfires. Nowadays, May 1 is often marked by events campaigning on labour rights issues, as well as dance events and many other occasions to enjoy some quality German beers with friends.

What to do on May Day in Germany

Whichever way you wish to celebrate the first day of May in Germany, the main thing to know is that it is a public holiday for almost everyone, as German schools and most businesses are closed for the day. Here are some ways you can celebrate your day off:


May 1 is strongly associated with dance events. In many German cities, the last night of April is a night for partying and dancing. From small-town squares to major nightclubs in big cities, people all over Germany go out dancing on April 30 to ring in the new month. The dancing normally goes on until very early the next morning, but there’s no work or school on May 1, so why not join the others in shimmying the night away?

Mayday electronic dance music festival in Dortmund, for example, is of one of the most famous dance events in all of Germany and takes place from April 30 until the small hours of May 1.

Celebrating workers’ rights

Many people organise protests, rallies, marches and campaigns for workers’ rights on May 1. Ever since the now-infamous workers’ strikes in the USA in the 1880s, May 1 has come to be known as Labour Day (Tag der Arbeit). Kreuzberg in Berlin has grown to be a focal point for campaigning for workers’ rights on May 1 and it continues to attract activists and public attention year after year.

Celebrating Labour Day can be an occasion for either partying or protesting, depending on your persuasion. Many people enjoy both simultaneously. Either way, Berlin will be a hive of activity and  a great place to be on May 1.


Putting up the May tree

The originally pagan ritual of putting up a May tree is alive and well in many German regions, particularly in Bavaria, East Frisia in Lower Saxony and Baden-Württemberg. The tree (or sometimes just a pole) is put up around May 1 and decorated with flowers, streamers and ribbons.

As you might expect, the event is accompanied by some traditional German cuisine: sausage eating and beer drinking. The famous Maibock beer is brewed especially for the event. Parades also typically take place, complete with music from a live brass band. 

In some communities, it’s all part of the fun to steal May trees from rival towns, so everyone must stay on their guard to ward off any potential thieves. If a May tree is successfully stolen, the town must pay a hefty ransom (largely consisting of beer and food) to secure its safe return. In 2004, some plucky pilferers managed to steal a May tree from the top of the Zugspitze, Germany's tallest mountain, by using a helicopter!

Lighting fires

A key element of the pagan origins of May 1 celebrations is fire. Germanic folklore has it that witches would meet at the peak of the Brocken mountain to get into dialogue with the devil. Fires were lit to ward off any potential evil spirits. To this day, some people in the Harz area (famous for its national park) still dress as witches and go dancing around bonfires in the mountains. This is known as Witches’ Night (Walpurgisnacht / Hexennacht)

Another important part of the fire celebration is jumping over the bonfire. Sometimes, human-like stick figures are set alight on the top of the bonfire, another way of deterring evil spirits. In some regions, this fire-jumping is still associated with paganism, while in other regions it has lost most of its pagan connotations and is simply a fun way to celebrate.

Plan your May Day 

Whether you plan to stay home and enjoy the day off or celebrate in a typical German way, May Day is sure to be memorable as we say goodbye to the cold, grey weather.

Rachel Deloughry


Rachel Deloughry

Rachel is a writer, editor and digital content creator, passionate about the arts, culture and lifestyle.

Read more



Leave a comment

Hectorium 14:41 | 10 April 2019

Few days left!