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Walpurgisnacht, Maibaum and May Day in Germany

Maifest is one of mankind’s oldest traditions, celebrating nature's reawakening after the cold and darkness of winter. Including in Germany as Beltane, an ancient pagan festival; a folk tradition and Celtic Festival of Fire; in the days of Roman domination a time to worship "Life, Fertility and New Beginnings"; then a Christian celebration. Now it's a fascinating mixture of history and culture celebrated in many areas of Germany, northern and central Europe.

"Walpurgisnacht" on May Day Eve begins all the revelry, as it has since celebrating witches were believed to gather on the Brocken mountain that night.

The highest of north central Germany's Harz mountains, it was here that they enjoyed themselves, whatever that involved for witches, flew around with their bats and cats, partied with the devil and warlocks, and waited for dawn to break. Bringing with it the beginning of summer.

As late as the 18th century maps of Germany continued to be drawn showing the "Witches Areas"; a warning for unwary travelers.

Walpurga, an English missionary to the Frankish Empire (what is now Southern Germany), was canonized on May 1, 870, so "Walpurgis Night" was the eve before her saint's day. It is something of a twist that an 8th century Abbess and Saint is associated with witches now, even as the patron saint against evil spirits.

Walpurgisnacht celebrations often focus around spectacular fires but, especially in south and southwest Germany, "Freinacht" as it is known in Bavaria means an allowance to make as much mischief and noise as possible.

Vehicles are sprayed with shaving foam; anything small enough to be mobile is liable to find itself somewhere completely different from where it began, so hiding things beforehand is optional but sensible. Graffiti is sprayed on doors and walls, paper streamers of all types are hung from or around trees, or in fact anything tall.

It is also not a good idea to leave a car outside on Walpurgisnacht, as they seem to attract shaving foam and lipstick paint jobs.

Witch like celebrations? Probably. And usually young people take part, with innocent easily rectified exuberance, although there are more serious consequences occasionally.

The next day is a public holiday in Germany, with sore heads in some sections of the community as well as May Day festivities around the "Maibaum", May Tree.

Maibaum, or Maypoles, are a continuing feature of German May Day tradition, especially in Bavaria. Replaced every three or five years, depending on the condition of the original wooden pole, this means there are dependably regular spring festivities in towns and villages.

A tall, perfectly straight pine or birch tree is chosen from the forest; felled, finished and painted. As the custom is for men from neighboring towns and villages to try to steal the completed pole, and ransom it for large amounts of beer and food known as "Brotzeit" - a snack, Maypoles have to be protected 24 hours a day until the May Day celebrations .

Despite this vigilance and the fact that by tradition each pole has to be between 20 to 30 meters high, the taller the better so it could be almost 100 feet and neither light nor easily maneuverable, the "thieves" sometimes succeed in taking it past the "cut off point". The village signpost or town boundary.

If the ransom is not paid the Maypole can be chopped up for firewood or, with the intention of embarrassing the original owners as much as possible, erected next to the one belonging to the "kidnappers" with a plaque giving its origins.

Perhaps the most spectacular theft was in 2004 from Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, when with the help of a helicopter the 20 meter (66 feet) "Fliegender Maibaum" was lifted from the mountain.

Unlike other regions of Germany, where a Maibaum is usually painted red to symbolize the creation of life and white for new beginnings, in Bavaria the stripes are "Bavarian sky blue" and white, but whatever their color combination once erected many are hung with shields.

Beautifully carved and painted, these often represent symbols of the local trades and guilds: Butcher, Plumber, Dairy Farmer, Brewery, Pharmacist, Fireman, Lawyer, Carpenter etc., as one of the original purposes of a maypole was to show travelers and visitors services offered by the town or village.

Almost the entire population in the smaller towns and villages, in Bavaria many including young children wearing "Tracht" the traditional costume of Dirndl (gathered skirts), and Lederhosen (leather shorts or trousers), as well as "outsiders" from neighboring villages and visitors, begin May Day's celebrations accompanying the Maibaum in a brass band led procession as it is pulled to the town center; or market place.

Surrounded by music, singing, dancing, food, especially local specialties that always include the ubiquitous "Brezeln und Würste", pretzels and sausages, together with beer, for at least some of the townspeople several hours of hard labor lie ahead. It takes ropes and pulleys, at times even cranes, before the Maypole is successfully erected.

Before it is covered with shields Maibaumkraxeln, Maypole climbing, is a popular, and difficult, May Day "sport". On maypoles made as slippery as possible, the climbers have to try to reach the top without falling off, all using their favorite, sometimes bizarre, techniques.

"How many climbers can be on the Maypole at one time" is a popular tradition. The Maibaum ends up looking like a giant kebab and at the moment the world record stands at 34 limpet like climbers.

More often than not it is a beautiful May spring day, but it would make no difference if there was a sudden cold spell, pouring rain, snow or a thunderstorm. As soon as the "mission has been accomplished", and that Maypole is in place, everyone crowds into a tent if necessary and serious partying begins.

Celebrations and "gemuetlichkeit" continue far into the night. It isn't called "Tanz in den Mai", Dance into May, for nothing as there really is non-stop dancing, and whatever the weather, or whenever it is that summertime is supposed to start officially, May Day means Spring and the prospect of summer's warm days have "arrived" in this small part of the world.

Illustrations: "Harz Witch" courtesy Harzlife.de - Munich Viktualienmarkt Maibaum courtesy stadtvogel.de - "Maibaumkraxler" - courtesy freinberg.ooe.gv.at

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