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Maypole tradition in Bavaria

This article discusses the tradition of maypole setting and dancing in Bavaria and most parts of Germany.

Introduction

One of the oldest illustrations of a maypole was made in 1590. It can be seen on a fresco by Hans Donauer in the Antiquarium of the "Münchner Residenz". The fresco shows Lake Starnberg and a castle. Beside the castle a maypole is depicted with double sided tillers for the emblems.

Erecting a maypole was not unique to Bavaria or to the Alpine region, but occurred in nearly all other European countries. The tradition reaches from gesteckten Maien to May dances around a decorated pole which was put up in a village square. Erecting a maypole must follow certain rules and is accompanied by traditional customs which are explained below. There are regional peculiarities which are beyond the scope of this general article.

History

In the 16th century erecting a white and blue painted maypole became a tradition in Bavaria. Later, in the 18th century, symbols and shields of different worker's guilds were added to the pole.

Erecting a maypole is a community enterprise. This can take the form of local clubs and groups of unmarried boys and girls. Normally, these groups choose a Maibaumchef or Maypole Leader, usually a farmer, joiner or carpenter, who knows about wood and woodworking tools.

Work is traditionally divided between the men and women. Men take care of choosing, cutting down and transporting the tree pole, while young women are responsible for the garlands, collecting donations and other decorations.

The selection of the tree is important; it has to have a height of at least 30 meters (100 feet) and must be bolted upright. To cut the tree down requires care and concentration to avoid damage. Usually it is donated by a local farmer or a club in the village. For transport a decorated horse-drawn wagon was used but today a tractor is common. The boys and girls arrive together in the village with the tree, where the residents wait for them together with a brass band.

Before erecting the maypole the tree must be prepared. First, the branches and the bark are removed. Then tree gets a wash with hot water and if necessary it is planed to the desired shape. To work more effectively, the tree is put on bevels. If they are going to paint the trunk, they take the tree into a factory hall or a repair shop. Traffic is normally blocked in the city where the Maypole is to be set up on the 1st of May.

After preparing the maypole it is important to guard it because, traditionally, young men from surrounding villages may attempt to steal it. To prevent this, the inhabitants and predominantly young men, stay awake the whole night. Young men from surrounding villages also stay awake the entire night looking for their chance to steal the pole. If, by chance, they should be successful in absconding with the pole, the pole is returned after negotiations take place over barrels of beer and food.

A few unwritten rules govern the stealing of the maypole:

  1. Thieves who are captured inside the village have to give the maypole back.
  2. No force is allowed!
  3. The maypole must remain undamaged.
  4. After May Day, it is not allowed to steal the tree.
  5. A tree can only be stolen when it is in the village.
  6. The larcenist must commit the deed unobserved.
  7. If a stolen tree is not redeemed, the thieves can put it up as their maypole or can put it up as a disgraced tree next to their own.
  8. The theft and the redemption should be made without the need of police and the courts.
  9. Only the maypole can be stolen not the figures or the wreaths.

If the maypole survives all of these dangers then positioning begins. An unwritten law is that this should be accomplished only by physical strength. For this purpose, the entire village of men are mobilized. This is a traditional event which takes place on only one day of the year and so the entire villages comes together to celebrate this tradition in a big festival. Before erecting the maypole, the mayor of the village says a few words to the assembled villagers. After that the Reverend blesses the tree and then command is assumed by the "maypole chief". With commands such as Hauruck and Zugleich and with the aid of so called Schwalben the tree gets higher and higher. As soon as it is upright it is fixed in place. The band then plays for the traditional May dance. The festivities continue until late into the evening with plenty to eat and drink.

Summary

The setting up of the maypole is a tradition going back to the 16th century.

Young people of the village work together to select and cut down the tree, to transport and to decorate it. During the preparation it is necessary to guard the maypole because young people from other villages who would like to steal it. The setting up of the maypole is a big feast for the whole community.

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