Sunshine spread warmth over snow-covered jagged mountain peaks and sloping hills dusted with white. In the valley, meadows burst with new growth; green grass and clover, yellow dandelions and buttercups and tiny white daisies stretched young leaves towards the sky. It was the first day in May 2019 in the Bavarian mountain resort towns of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Locals and visitors flocked outdoors to frolic and revel in the season, to hike or bike along the many trails or feast and witness a centuries-old spring ritual.
Festivities fill the German calendar. Autumn brings Ernte Dankfest (Harvest thanksgiving festival). Church altars groan beneath displays of sheaves of grain, bread, flowers, apples, cabbages, and pumpkins — fruits from the fields. Winter is filled with celebrations of light and light-hearted fun. Advent begins on the first Sunday in December when a candle is lit on a wreath. Each following Sunday an additional candle is lit on the Advent wreath ending with the lighting of the tree on Christmas Eve. February’s dress-up party – Fasching (Carnival), hopes to drive out the dark days of winter. Spring holidays begin with Easter; displays of dyed eggs in baskets or hand-painted eggs hanging from pussy willow branches are in abundance.
And with the Maibaumstellung (May pole assembly) spring’s arrival is celebrated. When and how the custom of stripping a tree of its bark, raising, then decorating it began (and in some places, dancing around it) is unclear. Generally, it’s thought to be a pagan ritual celebrating fertility. Germany, Austria and other Nordic countries as well as England and the Czech Republic celebrate in various ways. In Bavaria, every few years on May Day, villages or towns erect a towering, new and naked tree, dress it in green wreaths and/or blue and white ribbons (colors of the Bavarian flag) and attach signs representing local crafts.
After decades of living in the United States I’d forgotten about this custom. Last year I was in the right place at the right time.
Restaurant Gasthaus Bräuwastl was the site for the event. On my way I stopped to chat with a well-dressed, gray-haired senior, a man whose aged, below-the-knee lederhosen, thick knitted sweater and dark green felt hut (hat) adorned with silver pins led me to think he was a local. I grew up speaking Bayrisch, but even I had to listen closely to understand him. In Germany, the farther south you travel, the easier it is to find yourself “lost in translation”, bewildered by the Bayrisch dialect.
My cordial guide pointed to a long tree stretched on a carrier. He said a Blass Kapelle (Brass band) would escort it before being placed by the Feuerwehr (Fire Department).
„In der alten zeit“ (In the past), he said, „war es getan bei junge Männer und nur mit Seilen und ihre Musklen.“
I wouldn’t mind seeing that, I thought, while visions paraded in my head –young men, arms bulging, strong thighs straining well-worn lederhosen raising a tree, helped only by ropes and a hefty dose of determination. Putting aside such pleasant thoughts, I turned my attention to the events taking place.
Two fire engines arrived. Several men stepped out. Their dark uniforms made it hard to imagine any on a “Firemen of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Lederhosen” calendar. Fantasy set aside, I soon discovered that the art of placing a maypole is serious business.
To start, a local official gave the required opening speech. Next came a short blessing of the tree. Finally brawn took over.
Our crowd watched in fascination. With the speed of a turtle, the fire engine’s lift operator raised the tree within the narrow confines of the street, swung it towards the frame, and then lowered it into the solid steel mount. Two firemen drilled and drove thick screws into the trunk to secure the tree in its new home for the next few years.
Tree in place, the party began in earnest. While the brass band from neighboring Farchant played, enticing aromas drifted through the air. Surrendering hunger to the flavors of bratwurst and smoked steckerlfisch on the grill and kartoffelsalad (potato salad), revelers celebrating spring quenched thirst with liters of beer while others, like me, tempted by decadent desserts on display, deserted diets.
Four days later winter tried one more time to muscle in on the season. Opening the curtains, I was reminded of a childhood story. Looks like Frau Holle is spring cleaning, I thought. As if giving her featherbed a vigorous shaking, for a few hours plump white flakes drifted like down from the sky, leaving Garmisch-Partenkirchen, its mountains, meadows and people under a blanket of snow. By next morning the snow had melted and spring was here to stay.