Spring has long since arrived in Germany, a fact I was all too aware of the last few weeks as I was bombarded with the worst allergies I’ve had in years. Thankfully that’s all cleared up now, as today is the First of May, which happens to be a public holiday here in Germany! The holiday’s various names – Erster Mai, Maifeiertag, Tag der Arbeit – reflect the many ways in which modern Germans celebrate it.
The First of May has many roots in paganism and traditional European culture. Whenever I think about May Day I come up with images of may-trees and Morris Dancers, likely the result of having spent too much time in Victoria, British Columbia.
The day’s status as Der Tag der Arbeit or Labour Day comes, surprisingly enough, from the nineteenth and early twentieth century labour movements. According to Wikipedia, German Labour Day only officially became a holiday however in 1933 following the rise to power of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – or, as we know them today, the Nazis. On the 2nd of May 1933 the National Socialists banned unions, and stormtroopers raided union offices. Following the war the Allied Occupiers allowed the continued celebration of the First of May.
So, with his day off from work, what does your modern German do to celebrate? Well, he has a few options running from pagan to political!
Some people gather in large cities for political demonstrations, while others flock to the Brocken, a mountain in the centre of Germany, for the celebration of Walpurgisnacht. Legend has it that centuries ago witches met atop the mountain on the night of April 30th, helping to cement the place of the Brocken in German romantic literature.
Among my acquaintances however the most common way is to celebrate by combining two of Germany’s favourite things: hiking and beer! Last year I wandered along the Moselle with a group of friends, with our requisite Bollerwagen or re-purposed children’s wagons loaded to the hilt. We stopped off along the way for a cheeky barbeque before taking the bus back into Trier, which was a hoot to see the improvised palette wagon below being navigated into the bus!
Note the Bollerwagen, an important part of any serious May Day hiking trip