Spring celebrations are a common theme in many European countries, and Germany is no exception to this rule. However, the celebrations that occur annually on May 1st may differ based on the specific region (or even on a person’s individual preferences). Some of the events happening on this day go all the way back to Roman and Germanic roots while others relate to International Workers’ Day. Depending on the region you find yourself in, you may experience very different traditions, all of which deeply reflect German culture and history in their own way. So what happens where, and why? Let’s look at three major events related to 1 May in Germany.
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Spring celebrations on May 1st
Celebrations around the 1st of May date back to Roman times. The day marks the unofficial beginning of summer and is halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In Roman times, people celebrated the goddess of flowers around this date, and May celebrations often coincided with important agricultural events, such as planting the fields and moving livestock to the summer pastures.
Over the years and with the rise of Christianity, May Day traditions in Germany changed quite a bit. One thing, however, stayed the same: Flower decorations can still be seen all over to signify the beginning of summer. In the past, celebrations often started the night before May Day, known as May Eve and continued the next day with the erection of a maypole and bonfires. Although bonfires now are usually only held around Easter — at an event known as Osterfeuer — many towns, particularly in the southern part of Germany, continue to set up a maypole.
The Witches’ night
A rather local but nonetheless famous festival is the so-called Walpurgisnacht, observed especially around the Harz region in eastern Germany. This historically Germanic event celebrates the beginning of summer in the name of Saint Walpurga.
In the Harz region, where the festivities take place every year, the holiday is marked by people dressing up as demons and witches and dancing the night away at the Witches’ Dance Floor (Hexentanzplatz) to ward off evil. In light of this tradition, it is no surprise that May Day is often referred to as “Witches’ Night” in Harz. Similar to other celebrations, Walpurgisnacht often includes bonfires. These fires were traditionally meant to protect cattle from diseases in the coming year.
May Day: A political perspective
Despite the long history of celebrations around May Day, it wasn’t until 1933 that 1 May became a holiday in Germany to celebrate workers. The German government added this festivity in line with the already existing International Workers’ Day. This celebration, which came to be as a reaction to the mass stoppage of Australian stonemasons as part of their eight-hour workday movement, has since been co-opted by many countries around the world.
It is thus no surprise that modern Labor Day celebrations in Germany are often marked by large demonstrations in Berlin, with tens of thousands of people marching to commemorate the rights of workers and to promote current workers’ union issues.
The common theme: A reason to celebrate
Whether it’s politically or culturally motivated, one thing can be said for sure: May Day in Germany is never boring! Dance the night away on the Brocken mountain or around a maypole, or take part in one of the many demonstrations around the country — you will surely find a lot to do!