Muttertag is the German celebration of May 1st which features dancing around the Maypole. Over 120 years ago, America inspired the celebration of labor on May Day. Dancing around the Maypole goes back quite a bit longer.
While driving from Stuttgart to Frankfurt, I wandered into Heidelberg for the first time on May Day. In the Marketplatz below Heidelberg Castle, crowds gathered around a podium as labor leaders honored their colleagues. This European Labor Day began in 1890 as a sympathy gesture for striking Americans in Chicago.
In another section of the mammoth series of squares, a tall Maypole towered above a crowd of dancers, who galloped around clutching a rainbow of colored ribbons. An outer circle of dancers moved clockwise while the inner circle pranced in the opposite direction. At the start, the dancers stretched their ribbons far away from the center, but moved closer as the colors wrapped around the pole. In synch with each other, and the music, the circles changed directions and unwound themselves.
The German Maypole goes back to pre-Christian celebrations of spring. Beginning with the Equinox in March – April, German tribes celebrated the new life and fertility of the season. Trees received a particular reverence during these rituals. Dancing around them became the precedent for the Maypole.
Some philosophers theorize spirits inhabited the early poles and dancing is a form of homage. A few Freud-followers believe the Maypole is a phallic symbol. Spirit and love does stimulate Germans in May. Wonnemond is the month of lovers. May is the highest marriage month in Germany. One custom is to decorate a tree in front of the bride’s home with long colored ribbons.
I fell in love with Heidelberg on that May Day. The cobbled streets of the Alstadt, flowing Neckar River, and majestic Heidelberg Castle, casting its shadow over the city, all enchanted me. Little did I know it was to become my second home within five years.
My ongoing love affair with Heidelberg inspired me to believe in the magic of German Maypoles. Each May Day I imagine the dancing and aurora of colors, a spirited spring pagent for over a millennium.