German Holidays and Customs in May

May Day, der Maibaum, and Walpurgis

Alignment of maytree in Aschau, Bavaria, Germany
Alignment of maypole in Aschau, Bavaria, Germany. Thomas Stankiewicz / LOOK-foto / Getty Images

The first day in "the lovely month of May" (Camelot) is a national holiday in Germany, Austria, and most of Europe. International Workers' Day is observed in many countries around the globe on May 1. But there are other German May customs that reflect the end of winter and the arrival of warmer days.

Tag der Arbeit - 1. Mai

Oddly, the widespread custom of celebrating Labor Day on the first of May (am ersten Mai) was inspired by events in the United States, one of the few countries that do not observe Labor Day in May!

In 1889, a congress of world socialist parties was held in Paris. The attendees, sympathizing with striking workers in Chicago in 1886, voted to support the United States labor movement's demands for an 8-hour day. They selected May 1, 1890, as a day of commemoration for the Chicago strikers. In many countries around the world May 1 became an official holiday called Labor Day—but not in the U.S., where that holiday is observed on the first Monday in September. Historically the holiday has had special importance in socialist and communist countries, which is one reason it is not observed in May in America. The U.S. federal holiday was first observed in 1894. Canadians also have observed their Labor Day since September 1894.

In Germany, May Day (erster Mai, May 1st) is a national holiday and an important day, partly because of Blutmai ("bloody May") in 1929. That year in Berlin the ruling Social Democratic (SPD) party had banned the traditional workers' demonstrations.

But the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) called for demonstrations anyway. The resulting bloodbath left 32 people dead and at least 80 seriously injured. It also left a big split between the two workers' parties (KPD and SPD), which the Nazis soon used to their advantage. The National Socialists named the holiday Tag der Arbeit ("Day of Labor"), the name still used in Germany today.

Unlike the U.S. observance, which cuts across all classes, Germany's Tag der Arbeit and most European Labor Day observances are primarily a working class holiday. In recent years Germany's chronic high unemployment (Arbeitslosigkeit, over 5 million in 2004) also comes into focus each May. The holiday also tends to be a day of Demos that often turn into clashes between the demonstrators (more like hooligans) and the police in Berlin and other large cities. If the weather allows, nice, law-abiding people use the day for picnicking or relaxing with the family.

Der Maibaum

In Austria and many parts of Germany, especially in Bavaria, the tradition of raising a Maypole (Maibaum) on May 1 still serves to welcome spring—as it has since ancient times. Similar Maypole festivities also can be found in England, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.

A Maypole is a tall wooden pole made from a tree trunk (pine or birch), with colorful ribbons, flowers, carved figures, and various other decorations adorning it, depending on the location. In Germany, the name Maibaum ("May tree") reflects the custom of placing a small pine tree atop the Maypole, which is usually set up in a town's public square or village green.

Traditional dances, music, and folk customs are often associated with the Maypole. In small towns virtually the entire population turns out for the ceremonial raising of the Maypole and the festivities that follow, with Bier und Wurst of course. In Munich, a permanent Maibaum stands at the Viktualienmarkt.

Muttertag

Mother's Day is not celebrated at the same time around the world, but Germans and Austrians observe Muttertag on the second Sunday in May, just as in the U.S. Learn more on our Mother's Day page.

Walpurgis

Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht), the night before May Day, is similar to Halloween in that it has to do with supernatural spirits. And like Halloween, Walpurgisnacht is of pagan origin. The bonfires seen in today's celebration reflect those pagan origins and the human desire to drive away the winter cold and welcome spring.

Celebrated mainly in Sweden, Finnland, Estonia, Latvia, and Germany, Walpurgisnacht gets its name from Saint Walburga (or Walpurga), a woman born in what is now England in 710. Die heilige Walpurga traveled to Germany and became a nun at the convent of Heidenheim in Württemberg. Following her death in 778 (or 779), she was made a saint, with May 1 as her saint day.

In Germany, the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, is considered the focal point of Walpurgisnacht. Also known as the Blocksberg, the 1142-meter peak is often shrouded in mist and clouds, lending it a mysterious atmosphere that has contributed to its legendary status as the home of witches (Hexen) and devils (Teufel). That tradition predates the mention of the witches gathering on the Brocken in Goethe's: "To the Brocken the witches ride..." ("Die Hexen zu dem Brocken ziehn...")

In its Christian version, the former pagan festival in May became Walpurgis, a time to drive out evil spirits—usually with loud noises. In Bavaria Walpurgisnacht is known as Freinacht and resembles Halloween, complete with youthful pranks.