The story of the Bavarian maypole has to be my favourite Bavarian tradition yet. For the blue and white poles you see dotted around this part of Germany aren’t just any old chunks of decorated tree. They are practically Bavarian royalty.
Each village in our rural parts has one of these poles proudly standing somewhere central and stretching high – very high – into the sky. You usually see them somewhere central, like outside the local Rathaus (town hall) or by the main green. As you can see in this picture, even the guinea pigs at Munich Zoo have one.
They are made from a tree cut down from one of the many nearby forests, and then decorated with the emblems of local trades people, like the butcher, the baker, and the candle-stick maker. Every few years they are replaced by a new pole, which is usually hoisted up on May Day during a party involving lots of beer, men in lederhosen, and women in dirndls. It’s a very proud moment for the villagers, because it’s taken a lot for that pole to go from tree trunk to the biggest erection in the village.
The Royal pole would usually have spent the days or even weeks leading up to May Day being guarded at a top secret location by the local villagers. Sometimes it’s hidden in an old barn, or somewhere big enough to hold this bloody huge tree trunk. Not the easiest thing to conceal in say, someone’s lounge, is it? The pole is guarded with the villagers’ lives because it is completely legal for rival villagers with nothing better to do to steal the pole before it is put up. Yes, really. Despite being a land known for its rules and religion, the Germans bend the ‘thou shalt not steal’ commandment when it comes to the Royal Poles, allowing a kind of pole theft- free-for-all. Respect.
In fact, this did actually happen this year in a town not far from us. In the dark of the night one town’s pole was pinched by the folk of a neighbouring town, who managed to locate it with the help of secret servicemen and then override its alarm system. Yep, some of these poles have an alarm system. For a village to have its pole stolen under its very eyes is a huge embarrassment. The said pole was eventually returned, along with crates of beer for the thieves and their red-faced victims to enjoy together.
On the Royal Pole’s big day, its appearance is given the final once over before it is released from its secret hiding place into the big wide world. It is then usually paraded around on the back of a truck or by horse as part of a celebratory procession, a bit like a blushing carnival queen. The men of the village then precariously hoist it into position, often using long bits of wood. This can take hours. During that time lots of beer is consumed by the lads with the life of the pole – and many of their neighbours watching – in their sweaty, beery hands.
This is a nerve-wracking time. Not because the huge tree trunk could fall down and seriously injure someone. But because, more importantly, some poles have been known to break and then those buggers from the other villages can come along, point at the broken trunk, and laugh out loud at their competitors’ agony.
Once the pole is finally in place, the party really gets started, and even more beer is consumed.
This tradition in Bavaria goes back to the 12th century, and it clearly hasn’t changed much since. But of course in the end it’s all a bit of fun, and a great excuse for Bavarians to bolster their great community spirit and have a few beers at the same time. Prost!