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Maitag: a day rich in traditions

The first of May is recognised in many places throughout Europe as May Day, and Germany

is no exception. In every region of the country, Maitag is celebrated as a public holiday and the

day is significant for multiple reasons.

Maypole. Photo: holzijue via Pixabay

A day of pagan traditions


Across German-speaking countries, there are many different customs that celebrate May

Day and the season of spring. Here are a few of the most striking:


  • A new angle on 'capture the flag'?

Bavaria is a region particularly rich in May Day traditions. Here, a couple of days before the

new month, a tree is used to create a maypole (Maibaum), decorated with ribbons and

wreathed with flowers. This maypole is then placed in the centre of a village, where its

citizens may spend the night of the 30th April (Walpurgisnacht). The aim of this is to prevent

people from nearby villages from sneaking off with it, while simultaneously attempting to steal

the maypole from a neighbouring village. The ransom for the return of a maypole (and even

villagers ‘captured in the struggle’)? Beer.


  • Dancing

While other regions which create a maypole for May Day may not try to steal the decorated

tree, dancing around it is fairly common. Traditionally, the dancers will hold long ribbons

attached to the top of the pole and dance around each other, so that a braided pattern is

created on the maypole.


  • Walpurgisnacht

This term refers to the evening before May Day (April 30 th ) and is named after Saint

Walpurga, who was reputed to be able to ward off witches. It seems fitting that this night is


also known as Hexennacht (Witches’ Night). According to folklore dating back to the Middle

Ages, on this night, witches would fly on brooms to meet with the devil and it was customary

in Germany to light large bonfires to keep witches away, a tradition which continues to this

day.


While today Walpurgisnacht is an evening of celebration, it’s important not to overlook the

unpleasant side to this tradition. The belief that witches were responsible for misfortune

resulted in the persecution and murder of hundreds of thousands of people from 1450-

1750, of whom the vast majority were women.

Walpurgisnacht bonfire, Saxony. Photo: Kora27 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


May Day as Labour Day


The first of May is not just associated with celebrations of the beginning of spring. In its

capacity as Tag der Arbeit, it is also a day on which you would traditionally expect to see people in

Germany gathering in political demonstrations. These rallies or marches are most common in Berlin,

usually centring on poor working conditions and calling for an improvement in workers’ rights.


The concept of a labour day was first mooted in London in 1864 but gained little interest,

until protests in the USA in 1886. These gained international attention when several workers in

various states demanding an eight-hour day were shot by police officers.


In October 1889, the then-SDAP (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei – Social Democratic

Worker’s Party) proposed making the first of May a Tag der Arbeiterbewegung (Day of Workers’

Movement) but it wasn’t established as a national holiday until 1919.


By 1929, during the Great Depression, over three million people living in Germany were

unemployed. That year, over thirty people died in Maitag demonstrations in Berlin, organised by the

Communist Party. Today, it is known as Blutmai (Bloody May).

A memorial to some of those killed during Blutmai, Wiesenstraße, Berlin. “At the start of

May 1929, 19 people met their deaths and 250 were wounded in street fights here.” Photo: Mfriedrich111 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


Just four years later, in 1933, the German Tag der Arbeit was hijacked by the Nazi Party and

renamed Feiertag der nationalen Arbeit (Day of celebration of national work). The following day, SA

troops raided all labour and trade unions, closing them down and sending their leading members to

concentration camps or prisons.


After the Second World War, 1 st May was once again celebrated as Labour Day in both East

and West Germany, but it wasn’t until 1990 and the Reunification of the country that these Labour

Day demonstrations became collective once again.


In recent years, Labour Day protests have been in decline in Germany. According to statistics

cited by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (a German federal government agency that aims

to promote civic education), in 1960, 750,000 people took part in a Labour Day demonstration in

Berlin alone. In recent years, in Hamburg and Berlin, this day has often been disrupted by violent

riots, commonly known as Krawalle and in 2019, the number of people attending marches had sunk

to 13,000.


Last year, the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (Confederation of German Trade Unions)

requested for the first time that rallies protesting poor working conditions should not take place in

person, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, on 1 st May 2021, instead of in-person rallies, the

confederation will again be organising its second Labour Day livestream: Solidarität ist Zukunft

(Solidarity is the future).

1999 stamp for the 50th anniversary of the Deutscher Gewekschaftsbund. Photo: Steveurkel via Wikimedia Commons

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