The Secret Side of the Maypole Tradition
As you might have already noticed, I love everything about ancient cultural traditions. One of my personal favorites, the Bavarian tradition of the Maypole, I believe might just be one of the most fun.
A Maypole or Maibaum is a tall tree that has been stripped of it’s branches and is either left natural or painted with the classic Bavarian blue and white. Besides the decorative stripped and checked painting a Maypole has either crests symbols or figures jutting off the sides which represent the many different craftsman guilds of the village. The Maypole is erected by the young men of the “Burschenverein” a kind of Maypole club. They are placed in the village square on the first day May. The t of May or Mayday is often called Workers Day.
Much of what I have already written is common knowledge so I won’t bore you with more facts. But were you aware that much of the work that goes into making a Maypole must be done in secret? For the its own safety? This is absolutely true! It is tradition for the young people of other villages to stealthily steal the Maypole from another town and to hold it hostage for unbelievable amounts of beer and food. There are many famous thefts of Maypoles including the legendary 2004 theft of the massive one on the top of Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze which was done by helicopter.
I learned firsthand how much effort is put into the safe keeping of the pole when I first moved to Schliersee and was motivated to stop and take some photos of a Maypole in progress in one of our neighboring villages. I would stop by from time to time to see the various stages from natural tree to hand hewn pole and onto the finish painting. On one of my last visits I had the definite feeling that I was being watched. Just behind me was a mobile wagon used on construction sites, peering out of each window were nervous faces of young men. I had to laugh to myself thinking t they must be wondering if I am doing reconnaissance for another village to come steal their Maypole.
Every effort is made to secure the safety of the Maypole and therefore the honor of the village or town. I have seen 24 hour video camera coverage. Recently here in Schliersee a radio personality moved in and kept watch over the local Maypole 24 hours a day. It was great fun to watch as he was visited by various people, blessed by the local church and even pizza was delivered to him so he didn’t have to leave his post. You are required to pay the ransom for the stolen Maypole and with astronomical ransoms being the norm, guarding that pole is a serious business.
As with everything in Germany there is a list of rules and basic decorum for stealing another villages Maypole which must be followed. I have acquired the list for you incase you are feeling the need to invade your neighboring town.
Bavarian rules for Maypole Theft:
- No rooted trees must be stolen, the tree must have already been felled.
- Trees must not be stolen from the forest, since wood theft is otherwise punished.
- The maypole must be stolen only when it finds itself within the place, for it is only then that it is a maypole.
- You cannot steal your own town’s Maypole. It is forbidden.
- The tree must be stolen secretly and undetected.
- The tree must not be sawn or damaged.
- Violence against guardians must never be applied.When a guardian from the village puts his hand on the tree, he cannot be touched by the thieves.
If violence is used, the police are often switched called, which is always unfavorable for the preservation of the custom. So basically keep it a clean.
- If the thieves within the municipality boundary are surprised at the transport, they must return their prey without a fight. If you are found within the town stealing the Maypole you have to give it back.
- Once the Maypole is erected it can no longer be stolen.
- Boards and wreaths must not be stolen, only the tree itself. So the decorative attachments must he stay
- If the theft was successful, the parties enter into ransom negotiations.No extreme claims may be made.
- It is permitted to steal a stolen Maypole back, either from third parties or from the defendants.The rules must also be strictly adhered to.
- Traditionally, the Maypole thieves help to erect the trees and help with decorating as well.
- If negotiations fail, it is considered additional blessing to those who stole the Maypole.After a few weeks, the Maypole sawn and auctioned.Before that on the “ Schandbaum” or “Shame-Tree,” a panel is often affixed, on which the thieves express their disappointment by mocking.
- After reconciliation peace is restored.The tradition of the maypole should be handled in such a way that lawyers are unnecessary.
Let this be a reminder to anyone who might be interested in attempting to steal a Maypole this year….always follow the rules and keep it fun.
American artist, photographer and professional wanderer who, after 20 years of roaming, put down roots in a 100 year old Bavarian farmhouse and fell in love with the Alpine village and its residents (both 2-legged and 4-legged).