|The Maibaum in Konz, Kreis Saarburg|
This is not the subject I had intended to write about. Luckily I received my monthly e-mail copy of the "Irscher Newsletter" in the midst of my frustration and found a topic I thought readers might find interesting. The Newsletter is a monthly report from my home village on club meetings, school concerts and any other special festivities. For the first time since I've been receiving it - over 10 years now - this thought struck me. If my great-great grandparents had not emigrated, I might still live in Irsch and some of the old customs, now mostly unknown to me, might be a part of my life, changed somewhat, but still there - as illustrated in the May 2014 Irscher Newsletter.
|Maibaum, Irsch, Kreis Saarburg, 72 ft high|
The Newsletter elaborated no further but usually the May 1 festivities are followed by partaking of good food and, of course, a lot of Maibowle (May Punch) and Maiwein (May Wine)"
But there is another very old May Day tradition in the Rhineland. May was and still is a time of courtship and romance. This also was not reported in the Irscher Newsletter. It really is not quite appropriate for newsletter articles as you'll understand as you read on.
The Origins of the Maibaum Celebration
The Maibaum custom was originally part of an old tradition called Mailehenbrauch. This was a form of village matchmaking dating back to the 17th century. It involved "loaning" the unmarried young women of the village to the bachelors for a certain period," folklorist Alois Döring says. "All of the unmarried young women in the village were auctioned off to the unmarried young men and each pair became a May couple," Döring continues. "Whoever paid the highest price was the May King and he had the corresponding May Queen."
But there were very specific rules attached. Each May groom was required to put up a tree decorated with colorful ribbons for his May bride as part of this custom. And this tradition is still observed in many Rhineland villages until today, possibly in Irsch too.
The Maibaum Customs Today
For young, unmarried men, the tradition of the romantic Maibaum has shifted somewhat more toward the fun of an excursion into the woods. This being ecologically conscious Germany, there are often special lots which grow young birch trees for this purpose. A young tree can be purchased and chopped down while enjoying some good Maibock (May Bock) beer with friends who are engaged in the same activity. In some rural regions of the Rhineland the girl still finds a Maibaum in her yard or on her doorstep. And pity the girl whose yard is unadorned. No young woman in Irsch would want that item of news printed in the village newsletter.
I found an article by a freelance writer, living in the Rhineland who did interviews with today's young women about the continuation of the old Maibaum custom and their reactions to it.
"When the girls look out the next morning, many ask themselves: who brought it?" That's how it was for 30-year-old Anke Baldus, when she got her first May tree 15 years ago. "You first had to have a huge girlfriends meeting," she says. "Then it was off to the village to ask people: who was at what May celebration. Who saw whom and could have transported a May tree like that?" Anke has again received a Maibaum that year - from her husband.
To me it resembles the anxiety of "Prom" time in the United States. Will I be asked to the prom, wonders the US girl. Will I have a Maibaum outside my house on May 1 is the worry of the Rhineland girl.
Part of this whole tradition is that one village tries to steal the maypole from the neighbours. If they succeed with the theft, the safe return of the maypole is up for negotiation with ransoms involving copious quantities of beer and food. Some "Burschenvereine" (translates to something like "young guys' club") have specialized in stealing the maypoles that are most closely watched by the strongest security. Maypole stealing is governed by a pretty strict code of conduct: sawing or damaging the maypole in any way is absolutely frowned upon as is a non-payment of the ransom.
Karin Christensen, Of Maypoles and May Bock