The view from here
"...this is some real-life, old-fashioned romantic love-proclamation, that I hope will forever remain a tradition in my home country."
I’ve always been very intrigued by other countries’ traditions and have been trying to take part in foreign customs wherever I go. I find it fascinating to learn about the history of traditions, how they developed and how and why people celebrate certain things in different parts around the world. It gives you so much insight into a culture and teaches you so much about what other people value.
In Germany, we have a lot of traditions that are pretty well known around the world. Apart from the common public holiday celebrations around Easter and Christmas, people know about our love for beer, and celebrate it with us every year during the popular “Oktoberfest” in Munich. Most people are also aware that certain regions of Germany, like Cologne, celebrate their own type of “carnival” once a year and there is hardly anyone out there who hasn’t heard of our famous Christmas markets.
However, as much as I love all these holidays and traditions, since I can remember, there is one that always has been and forever will be my favourite tradition of them all. For me, the “1st of May customs” really take the cake.
The German “Maibaum” (maypole) tradition goes back to the 16th century. Villages all around Germany decorate a tree (usually a birch) and erect them in the village square on either the 30th of April or the 1st of May. This usually happens in combination with a huge “May festival” celebrated by the entire village. I love that this tradition brings people together. Not just families but entire neighbourhoods, communities and whole villages. The 1st of May is also pretty much the beginning of summer (not quite officially but weather wise for sure). With summer being my favourite time of the year, this day makes me want to jump for joy in so many ways.
The Maibaum as a symbol for love
So let me tell you about the romantic side of this favourite German holiday of mine.
Every year during the night from the 30th of April to the 1st of May, all men decorate their own Maibaum (“may tree”) with colourful paper ribbons and put them up in front of the house of their girlfriends, spouses or (most excitingly) someone they have a secret crush on.
Being a girl around this time of year, especially during our teens and early twenties, was always insanely exciting for me. The girls usually go on a night out with their friends and “dance into May” until the early morning hours before they go home to find out whether or not they have been lucky enough to score a Maibaum.
Setting up a may tree for your loved one
The guys have to go out and either buy or, traditionally, fell a birch. Back in the days there weren’t any places to buy may trees but since felling birches in the forests has been illegalised in some parts of Germany nowadays, businesses selling trees on the 30th of April have become more and more popular.
It is very similar to the Christmas tree tradition. It still is a lot more “romantic” to look for your tree in the forest and fell it yourself rather than driving down to the Christmas tree market and having one wrapped up for you by a salesman. The same goes for may trees. So once the guys have bought or felled a birch, they have to transport them to the house of their beloved and decorate them with colourful paper ribbons. Once the tree is set up securely, the men then have to guard their trees for most of the night to make sure no one steals them. Part of the tradition is that other guys can steal trees from each other (any time before sunrise) so the tree setter usually has to camp out in front of the girl’s house to protect it. Once the sun rises, the men can leave knowing that, following the tradition, no one will be allowed to steal their trees - job done.
I still remember the days when me and my girlfriends would drive around to our houses together to find out who of us got their own Maibaum. It was quite daunting at times and pretty heart-breaking in case you didn’t get one but the excitement and exhilaration you felt when you actually found one in front of your door was well worth the anxiety you had to endure leading up to it ;-)
If you had a boyfriend, it was, of course, pretty obvious who set the tree for you but it didn’t make it feel any less special. The appreciation your partner showed for you and your relationship by going through the effort of picking, decorating, setting up and guarding a tree for you is such a sweet way to showcase and celebrate your love for each other that it made you feel proud and grateful for what you had year after year. This feeling is one that, at least for me and many other people I know, never seems to wear off.
On the other hand, in case you were single, receiving a Maibaum meant that you had a secret admirer - and what’s more exciting than that?! In that case, you basically spent the entire month of May fantasising about who might have set your tree for you. Hoping it was the guy you secretly had a crush on yourself of course.
The anticipation and excitement grew with every passing day, until finally, on the 1st of June, you’d be freed from your anguish and would find out who your secret “tree setter” was.
The tradition is, that on the 1st day of June, whoever set the tree for you, has to come to your house and take it down. As a thank you, the guys are then invited to a BBQ by the girl’s family and usually get a box of beers from the girl’s dad.
Another favourite thing of mine about this tradition is that, every leap year, the rules are reversed and it’s the womens’ turn to set a tree for their loved ones. Me and my friends always looked forward to these years in particular, where we could go all out and show the guys how much we appreciated their “May tree efforts” for us every single year. The tradition “allows” women to sprinkle a love heart with rice in front of the men’s houses instead of setting a tree but most women go the whole way and return the favour in true tree fashion. Us girls always helped each other and went tree -hunting, -setting, -decorating and -guarding together. It was definitely the funnest night of the year and we’ve never felt more proud than we did looking at our marvellous efforts once we were done.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of commercialised, somewhat forced, “let’s celebrate our love for each other days” like for example Valentine’s Day. However, the “Maibaum” tradition is a completely different kettle of fish! Yes, it might be commercialised too BUT there is some real effort going into choosing, chopping down, decorating, setting up and guarding these trees for your loved one. To me, this is a real sign of dedication, commitment and genuine appreciation for each other.
In today’s world where it’s common to proclaim your love for each other on social media, update your relationship statuses online and lie in bed next to each other with your phones in your hand, this is some real-life, old-fashioned romantic love-proclamation, that I hope will forever remain a tradition in my home country. It is one that I am proud to share with people around the world and one that I would love to encourage people from other cultures to adopt. It’s taking the “I buy you a bunch of flowers as a sign of my love for you” to a whole new level.
To this day, my dad decorates a birch for my mum every year.
A few years ago now, he planted a birch for her in our garden. (He has stopped felling and setting new birches for her every year, not just because he is getting older, but also because he wants to leave the front of the house free for my sisters to have trees set for them ;-) But, every night on the 30th of April, he decorates the birch he planted for her with colourful ribbons and love hearts and my mum and him sit down in the garden under their tree almost every day throughout May until my dad takes the decoration down again on the 1st of June. And even though we all know that it was him - of course, we still have a BBQ with the whole family on the first day of June to celebrate their marriage and love for each other and every guy that has set a tree for me or my sisters gets invited and joins in on the celebrations.
The 1st of May combines the celebration of community, summer and love. As a social, summer-loving romantic, it really can’t get much better than this!
I’ve now missed out on this wonderful tradition for a few years while living in New Zealand, but I am planning to go back home for it next year to immerse myself in my favourite German tradition and join in on the celebration of community and love. I’ll urge you to do the same if you ever get the chance!!
Author - Natalie Gruner
Nat is one of the co-creators of Travelher and loves travel, family and all things beach. She is currently working in NZ and getting away for an adventure as often as she can.