While the tradition of the Maypole isn’t unique to Germany, the Bavarians seem especially fond of what they call the Maibaum. Across the southern German state, you’ll find wooden poles in the region’s trademark white and blue shooting up into the sky. They’re in small villages, big cities, and popular destinations like farmers’ markets and your favorite Biergarten.
But how do these giant landmarks get there? While some towns embrace modern technology and use a crane, others are still doing it the old-fashioned way with manpower. In the town of Aying, just outside of Munich, the local Burschenverein (a local men’s club) hoist the Maibaum by hand — and it takes the whole day!
A Brief History of the Maibaum Tradition
The first of May is a holiday across most of Europe where they celebrate International Workers’ Day. In some cities, this can mean parades and demonstrations in support of workers’ unions. Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood is famous (or infamous) for its Erster Mai demonstrations that, in the past, have become riots. And while the demos aren’t limited to the German capital, things are (generally) a bit more peaceful and calm in Bavaria. Munich, for example, does have demonstrations and events throughout the day. You’ll largely find these in the downtown city center.
But 1. Mai is also the spring festival of May Day. It’s a tradition that dates at least to the 13th century. It sees townspeople coming together in their finest to celebrate. This includes festivities by the Maibaum and drinking Maibock, a seasonal beer variety. Once the Maypole is in its full upright position, dances or even Maypole climbing are popular activities.
What is a Maypole or a Maibaum?
So what is a Maypole? Each Maypole is, of course, different. In Bavaria, you’ll frequently see the poles painted in a diamond-checker and/or candy cane swirl pattern of blue and white. The colors are, of course, a not so subtle nod to the state of Bavaria. Along the sides of the pole, you’ll usually see graphic, colorful signs depicting the local guilds or businesses. And the cherry on top? Often a wreath hangs down from the top, around the pole.
While some towns and locations replace their Maypole annually, smaller towns may do it less frequently. If you want to experience this Bavarian tradition first hand, you need to plan ahead! Similarly, some Maypole raisings today are done with cranes (quick and easy!) while others are all-day adventures that require hard work and sweat. The size of the Maypole greatly affects how long it takes to put it into place.
Where to See this German Tradition in Bavaria
Want to experience the Maypole tradition and a Mayday Festival yourself? There are listings of previous and future Maypole lifts on the official Bavarian tourism website as well as independent websites. These websites serve as a guide sharing which towns and communities will be celebrating with Maibaum aufstellen, or Maypole raising. I recommend planning ahead but also having a backup plan if there’s a change or the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Experience Raising the Maypole (Maibaum aufstellen) in Aying, Germany
When I knew I was going to be in Germany over the May 1st holiday, I knew I wanted to experience the German tradition of the Maypole raising. And being able to do so in Aying, one of my favorite Munich suburbs, was fantastic. The town is a roughly 40-minute train ride on the S7 S-Bahn train south of Munich. But the town is so quiet and relaxing that it feels like another world away.
A family-owned beer brewery sits near the center of the quiet town where you’ll find the church with its picture-perfect onion-domed steeple. Just across the street from the church is Brauereigasthof Hotel Aying, the town’s family-run hotel that offers a luxury twist on the Bavarian charm that is a favorite of mine, and the local pub, or Bräustüberl. It’s also so typisch Bayrisch!
And one of the town’s traditions is to erect a new Maypole every five years. The Ayinger Burschenverein has the task of felling the tree from the forest, turning the log into a Maypole, and finally hoisting it into its place of honor at the foot of the hotel. Oh, and it’s only 170 feet (52 meters) high and weighs 20,000 lbs (10 tons).
How They Lift the Maypole
On the first of May, the club parade into the heart of Aying with the brand new Maypole. It isn’t an easy feat considering the narrow streets. Even during normal hours, the streets are so narrow that they can barely handle two cars going in opposite directions past one another. The Maypole lifting event kicks off early and lasts, well, until the Maypole is up. In 2019, this took nearly six hours.
So how do they erect the Maypole? With a lot of manpower and additional supporting poles. They use supporting poles, or Scherenstangen, that are two poles joined together at one end with a few feet of rope. There are a number of sets of poles, increasing in length, which cradles the Maypole on the rope and then pushes it up. They also use additional poles with spikes that help guide the Scherenstangen into position.
Ever so slowly, the team works together to push the Maibaum into position. The supporting poles get longer and longer as the Maypole goes higher and higher. The men slowly work their way down the pole, towards the end that sits in a hole underground. There’s even a team of men that stand in the hole and oversee things.
But, much like Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Maibaum requires a little patience.
May Day Festivities
As the Burschenverein work to get the Maypole in position, everyone else parties. Wearing their best Trachten (usually Lederhosen and button-down shirts for men and boys while women and girls usually don Dirndls), the crowd is mostly locals and a small group of curious tourists. They assemble early and, if you’re lucky to get a table at the Bräustüberl (reservations are essential!), you can enjoy a special breakfast. Most people, however, stand in the crowd with drinks and food from the Biergarten. The entire event is an excuse for a social event. Families and groups of friends catch up while children enjoy a day outside.
Now, for the next five years, this Maypole will stand in Aying. When it comes time to replace it, it will be cut down and the process will start all over!
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All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own.