Twenty young men from the village of Stierberg huddled around old, musty couches in the open barn, a stolen 27-metre-long spruce tree trunk stowed safely behind them.
It was one of the last late-night watch shifts before May 1, and Christoph Marketsmüller had parked every piece of farm machinery he owned around the maypole.
Ever since members of the Stierberger Burschen, or Stierberg Boys, club lifted the tree in January from their rivals in nearby Kirchdorf, they had been taking turns guarding it. According to tradition, if a village can reclaim their lost property before negotiations begin, no maypole ransom has to be paid.
Flanked by 27 cases of locally brewed beer, it was clear that the boys had already received their payoff. But tonight, they were protecting the tree from another bunch of rival villagers from Sankt Wolfgang, who had had their tree stolen last year and were out for revenge. And last month, they nearly succeeded.
Two weeks ago, Marketsmüller explained, his father awoke in the middle of the night to the pungent smell of manure coming from a leaking biogas container next to their family’s barn. By the time he stepped outside, 30 young men had already loaded the tree onto a nearby trailer.
If they had taken another few steps, Marketsmüller said, he and his crew would have had to pay their own ransom to the men from Sankt Wolfgang. As a general rule, if a tree is carried the equivalent of its own length away from its initial resting place, it belongs to its captors. Luckily, his father was able to put his hand on the trunk and declare: “The tree stays here.”
“They were good,” Marketsmüller said. “They didn’t even leave a scratch.”
Although the boys had stored the tree inside the barn and surrounded it with tractors, ploughs and other heavy farming equipment, their adversaries came prepared. When it comes to agricultural machinery, Marketsmüller explained, there are only about ten different kinds of universal keys, none of which are hard to come by.
After that close call, the Stierbergers met every night at their club’s makeshift headquarters, swapping stories and drinking to pass the time.
They proudly recounted the cold night in January when their crew tracked the Kirchdorf villagers’ footsteps through knee-deep snow to locate the freshly felled spruce to be used for their maypole, crossing field after uneven field with two tractors and a jeep.
The heartiest laughter, however, came when Marketsmüller recalled how he discovered the exact location of their tree.
His girlfriend’s father was involved in securing Kirchdorf’s official maypole this year, he said. While over for dinner one night, Marketsmüller heard the phone ring and the answering machine pick up. It was a local lumberjack who had just chopped down the tree and proceeded to give detailed directions of how to find it.
Etiquette states that once a tree is out of the forest, it’s fair game for potential maypole thieves. The Stierbergers, however, knew time wasn’t on their side. They headed out that night.
“You have to bend the rules,” Marketsmüller said. Like most traditions, subtleties have been blurred over time and official rules remain up for debate.
So when the occasional maypole disappears, opposing sides are quick to send their highest ups to the negotiating table. Without a set protocol, both sides can be as uncompromising as they like.
But it was in no one’s best interest to be undiplomatic during the sensitive deliberations, Marketsmüller said. Kirchdorf wanted its tree back – and Stierberg wanted their ransom beer.
In Kirchdorf, word of the negotiations spread quickly. In exchange for 250 litres of beer, the Stierbergers would help trim and paint the tree before erecting it shoulder to shoulder on May 1.
In the end, the only point where the Kirchdorfers were unrelenting was the colour. They demanded Bavarian sky blue rather than the shade of navy the Stierbergers had suggested.
“You have to see it like this – If no one tries to steal a village’s tree, it means that place is uninteresting,” said Lukas Salzeder from Stierberg. “It’s good when one gets stolen.”