Saturday, May 10, 2014

An Old May Custom - the Maibaum

The Maibaum in Konz, Kreis Saarburg

In choosing a blog post for each month, I want to share some history or custom that is mostly unknown here in the United States. If I have a good amount of time to work on the post, I will start a subject I know is going to take time because of the need to translate, research, etc. At other times, with the deadline ticking away, I choose an easier topic. Is it Murphy's Law that those are the posts that usually are the most difficult. To date, I have mostly been undefeated in maintaining my "once a month" posting, even with surprise obstacles, but this time I have failed. With my intended blog post for the end of April still in disarray, it is clear that "This may take some time," as my computer used to tell me.

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.

I began to investigate the custom of the Maibaum or May Tree. 

The Irsch, Kreis Saarburg, Maibaum

 Maibaum, Irsch, Kreis Saarburg, 72 ft high
May Day is still an important celebration in my ancestral village. According to the Irscher Newsletter, this year's Maibäume (May tree) "shone in original splendor." A large tree was cut down and put in place by men of the Volunteer Fire Department.  It is sturdily  braced because Maibäume have the tendency to fall on buildings and parked cars if not well supported (as articles in the Trier Volksfreund newpaper told me).  

The Irsch tree was approximately 22 meters (72 feet) high, one of the highest Maibaum in Irsch in recent years. When the tree trunk was in place, it was graced with a decorated wreath which had been trimmed with flowers and bands of colorful ribbons by the school children of the village. On May 1, as part of the Maibaum celebration, the children of the Irsch daycare center sang and danced around the tree to welcome spring together with their families and many other villagers.

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.

Imagine - it’s early morning on the first day of May and a young woman peeks out from her front door. There it is! She sees what she’s been hoping for. Tied to a light pole outside her home is a tall, skinny birch tree with crepe paper chains and a heart with her name on it hung from its branches. 

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.

One young woman's wish came true
As one writer said, "In other parts of the world, women might long for jewelry or flowers from their admirers. In the Rhineland, girls dream of waking up to a decorated birch tree on the first of May."

Bavaria's Maypole

Bavaria also celebrates May 1, erecting a maypole and placing it in the city square.  Some are constrcted very much like the Maibaum; others are much more ornate.  There is celebrating with dancing, singing, and drinking a specially brewed beer.  

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.   

Since I have ancestors from Bavaria as well as the Rhineland, where would I choose to celebrate May 1 next year?  Either would be fun, but the Rhineland customs have stolen my heart; whereas the Bavarian Maypole might itself be stolen.  Sorry Bavaria, the Maibaum comes with romance as well as celebration and will be there on May 2.

Karin Christensen, Of Maypoles and May Bock


  1. Anonymous4:17 AM

    Hеya are using Wօrdpress for үour site platfоrm?
    I'm new to the blog world but I'm tгying to ցet started and set up my own. Do you neеd any coding expertise to make yoսr own blog?
    Any help would be really appгeciated!

    Here is mƴ blog :: new french diet

  2. As you can see, I'm using Google's Blogspot for my blog and am mostly satisfied with it, since I'm not a techie. Trying to answer your question fully is not in my expertise. I can tell you that there were no blogs or posts in 1800 Kreis Saarburg - The mail coach driver shouted out the information from other villages though.