Maibaum: Origin – meaning – tradition

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The tradition of putting up the maypole dates back to the Middle Ages. The colorfully decorated tree symbolizes life and fertility.

What is a maypole?
A maypole is a decorated tree or tree trunk. Depending on the region, it is traditionally erected either on 1 May or the eve of 1 May. The tree trunk is ceremoniously erected on the village square in many areas, especially in several German and Austrian federal states.

The top of the tree is usually crowned with a wreath, and the top of the tree is green. This is either felled anew yearly, or the same trunk is used for several years, with only the crown being replaced.

Origin & development
The origin of the maypole and its customs are controversial. Its origins probably refer to the ancient Germanic tribes and their worship of various forest deities. In this context, mention must also be made of the Dona oak, which was worshipped by the Germanic tribes, was dedicated to the god Donar or Thor and stood near Geismar (North Hesse). According to legend, it was felled by St Bonfatius.

As with many pagan customs, the Maypole blended pagan and Christian customs over the centuries. According to a traditional report from the Eifel region, there was a Pentecost tree in some places in the 13th century. Even in Thuringia, a so-called “Maien” is still planted at Pentecost in several places. The Maypole is also known as the “Marienbaum” in some areas.

The current form of the maypole, a tall trunk with a green top and wreath, has been around since the 16th century. From the 19th century onwards, it also appeared as a local maypole for independent communities and as a sign of their self-confidence. Over time, however, a strongly localised tradition has developed, which often differs considerably from village to village.

Customs around the maypole
Village festival
The raising of the maypole is often associated with a village or town festival, which usually takes place on 30 April, 1 May or Whitsun. Depending on the region, the tree is carried through the village in a procession immediately before it is erected. The destination is usually a central square, e.g., the village or town market square.

Depending on the tradition, the maypole remains until the end of the month or, in some places, until autumn. The tree is then either taken down, and the trunk stored for the following year or cut down as part of a festival, with the wood being auctioned off or raffled off to the highest bidder.

Maypole stealing
Another custom is the mutual stealing of the maypole from neighbouring villages. This is why young men often guard it the night before it is erected.

The custom varies from region to region: In some areas, the guard must have one hand on the uncut tree when strangers approach. If the thieves manage to prick the tree three times, it is considered stolen. Elsewhere, the future maypole must have been felled before it could be stolen. Stolen trees are usually redeemed in kind. If the return negotiations are successful, the tree is usually returned to the owner by the thieves in a ceremonial procession. If the maypole is not redeemed, the thieves often display it as a trophy in their village.

Love maypoles
The tradition of the Liebesmaien is also prevalent in many regions. It is customary for the young, unmarried men of a village to erect small trees, so-called maypoles (often birch trees), in front of the houses or windows of all unmarried women. In some areas, this is only done in front of the house of the girlfriend or the beloved. The trees are often decorated with colourful crepe paper and a so-called May heart, on which the name of the beloved or a saying is written, made of wood or sturdy cardboard.

The maypole usually stays up for about a month before the person who put it up picks it up again. This is usually accompanied by a token of appreciation from the woman, such as an invitation to dinner.

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