In Central and Northern European culture, love, magic, eroticism, and fertility are celebrated on the first night of May. May tree robbery and witchcraft on Walpurgisnacht are two of many celebrations. Here is what happens:
May Pole Robbery
One of the most ancient and beloved German customs of spring is related to a tree: the Maibaum or May tree. This freshly cut and colorfully decorated birch or spruce is the centerpiece of picturesque Southern German villages, folk dance festivals, and open-air Maifest parties. In the Rhineland, however, the Maibaum is also a coveted object of desire signifying love and yearning – and motivating nightly raids by mischievous tree thieves.
Every year on April 30th, young men in their late teens and twenties walk to a nearby forest to cut birch trees and decorate them with colorful crepe garlands, and a poem inscribed with the name of their beloved onto a piece of wood or carton. With the help of some friends, they will affix the tree alongside the house of a young Fräulein – most often their girlfriend or love interest.
On the young maidens’ part, the tree is taken as a sign of the commitment of the suitor. The taller the tree, the greater its symbolic meaning. In recent years, however, the roles have sometimes reversed, especially in leap years like 2012. Now you can see a young woman and her friends at night planting a Maibaum alongside the house of the man of her dreams.
But that’s just half of the work. The tree has to be guarded against rival groups from the same or neighboring towns trying to steal the tree. In some instances, the population of an entire village can be involved in such acts of thievery! Guards have to be distracted well enough to mark the tree or take possession of it outright. In the case of a successful robbery, the loss can be reversed through nightlong negotiations and the payment of a high ransom in the form of beer kegs, Maibowle, or another booty.
Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis or “Witches” Night
Mayfest has ancient roots. In per-Christian time, in the night from April 30 to May 1, people all over Central and Northern Europe celebrated the beginning of spring, love, and fertility with wild parties, bonfires, dances, sacrificial rituals, and, yes, occasional orgies of some kind. In some regions, farmers would dress in scary costumes and made loud noises with whips and brooms to chase away bad spirits of the winter.
It is said that during these ancient festivals, some young men and women applied a psychedelic ointment to their skin that would induce a trance and sensation of flight (yet, in high doses, would be deadly). The ointment was made from a mix of mistletoe, stinking nightshade (henbane), St. John’s wort, angels trumpet, deadly nightshade (banewort), fool’s parsley (poison hemlock), bittersweet nightshade and ergot. Druids and doctors used some of these herbs and plants as sedatives or analgesics, and others, like henbane, served as an ingredient to make beer.
With the arrival of Christianity during the Middle Ages, cleric authorities condemned the pagan roots of the spring festival and renamed the night before May 1 “Walpurgis Night” in honor of Saint Walburga (710 – 795), an early Christian missionary and abbess, who was canonized on the first of May. And they declared pagan rituals, like dressing up in scary costumes to chase away bad sprits and dancing in trance around bonfires, witchcraft. No wonder that’s some pious people in the Roman-German empire would soon concoct the tale of witches, flying on broomsticks, doors or even black cats, would congregate in the town of Thale (in today’s federal state of Saxony Anhalt), which is near the tallest hill in the Harz mountain region, called “Brocken” or “Blocksberg.” There, they would circle the mountain, first “kiss the devil’s ass”, and then marry him with an orgiastic ceremony.
Over the centuries, tales of witchcraft on Walpurgis Night were immortalized by many writers, musicians and painters, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in “Faust,” Felix Mendelsohn Bartholdi in “Die erste Walpurgisnacht,” H.P Lovecraft in “Witches Sabbath” or Ernst Barlach wood cut paintings in “Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht.”
Today, Walpurgisnacht has reconnected to its pagan past. Many German, Austrian and Nordic cities host “Kirmes” (carnival fairs), folk fests, and bonfire parties with lots of booze, to celebrate into May 1, a public holiday. Along the former wall in Berlin, in the center of Marburg, or at the Blocksberg in the Harz mountains – millions of Germans and foreign visitors don’t miss the chance to dress up and party into the months of May.