Germany’s most bizarre May 1st traditions

May 1st, which falls on Sunday this year, brings out weird and wonderful traditions in Germany, from mountain-top witch parties to day-drinking and dancing.

Devils and witches in Braunlage, Lower Saxony.
Devils and witches in Braunlage, Lower Saxony. On Saturday April 30th, the traditional Walpurgisnacht takes place in many places in the Harz. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Rampfel

1. Putting up (and stealing) the ‘May tree’

Left: Dresdeners put up the Maibaum. Right: A young woman climbs the Maibaum in Nesselweg, Bavaria. Photos: DPA.

Similar to the maypole of Anglo traditions, the German Maibaum (May tree) is erected on May 1st or the day before. Residents in Bavaria, East Frisia in Lower Saxony, Baden-Württemberg and elsewhere celebrate this originally pagan ritual each year within their local communities.

The tree (or pole) is decorated with things like colourful streamers, flowers and in some places with scenes showing local crafts or activities.

Parades, brass band music and sausage-eating usually accompany the event of the actual raising of the tree. And don’t forget the special dark Maibock beer, brewed just for the occasion.

Locals from Ruhpolding, Bavaria ride a stolen Maibaum down the street. Photo: DPA.

Perhaps the most thrilling part is the tradition of towns trying to steal one another’s May trees, requiring locals to keeps a close watch day and night to ward off their sneaky neighbours. If and when a tree is stolen, towns must then hash out a ransom for it, usually involving copious amounts of beer and food.

In 2004, some clever thieves used a helicopter to steal a May tree that had been placed atop Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze.

READ ALSO: How small-town thieves took down Munich’s Goliath maypole

Another challenge in some areas is that people (the Maibaumkraxler in Bavaria) compete to climb the tree to get to the top as fast as possible.  

2. Dancing until May comes

A Tanz in den Mai party in Dortmund. Photo: DPA.

Another tradition often associated with the May tree is Tanz in den Mai or dancing into May, starting on April 30th and not stopping until every one of your toes are aching.

But getting footloose on the eve of May 1st now also extends outside of the small town circles, with major clubs in big cities planning special events around the tradition. Since this year most Covid restrictions have been eased across Germany, you can except partying to be (almost) in full swing. 

3. Partying with witches and devils

Celebrations of the ‘Witches’ Night’ in the Harz mountains. Photo: DPA.

The dancing tradition is also associated with Walpurgisnacht or Hexennacht (Witches’ Night), which also takes place on April 30th and into May 1st. Germanic folklore says witches would meet on the peak of Brocken within the Harz mountains to revel with the Devil.

To this day, women in the Harz area (and beyond) will dress up and go dance on the mountain top, warts, horns and all.

READ ALSO: Are you ready for Walpurgisnacht, Germany’s night of witches?

4. Jumping over fires

A ‘May fire’ in Sieversdorf, Brandenburg. Photo: DPA.

Another way to celebrate the witches’ night around May 1st is to light a bonfire, or Maifeuer, and jump over it, though in some regions this isn’t always connected to magical sorceresses. Plus we would not recommend trying it. 

Other regions like Brandenburg light stick wooden figures of witches on fire to ward off any evil-doers. 

5. Protesting (or perhaps partying)

Berlin’s Kreuzberg district turns into a massive street party, while elsewhere in the city more serious activists hold protests on May 1st. Photo: DPA.

A more modern tradition is to use the International Workers’ Day as a way to promote labour rights and for left-wingers to protest injustices.

Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood became a hotbed for such demonstrations in 1987, when riots there were so intense that police had to retreat from the area for hours.

Protests still carry on and sometimes get violent on this day, but there are also now alternative events in Kreuzberg that essentially turn the area into a massive street party, with musical performances, dance parties in Görlitzer Park and endless day-drinking.

6. Revealing a secret crush

If you’re having trouble finding the courage to tell your crush how you feel, May 1st might just be the perfect excuse for you to finally buck up and do it.

The Maistrich (May line) tradition involves drawing a line of chalk between the two lovers’ homes that sometimes crosses through town and ends in a heart, and/or with the pair’s names.

Another tradition related to the Maibaum is for young men go into the forest, chop down a young tree and place it outside the home of their love interest, often with decorations and her name on it.

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10 life hacks to make you feel like a local in Germany

It can be difficult to settle into life in Germany, so here are 10 ‘life hacks’ that will make you feel more at home.

10 life hacks to make you feel like a local in Germany

1. Don’t be late

In the German-speaking world, punctuality is highly rated and lateness is considered rude.

To really fit in, follow the golden rule: be on time. Whether it’s for meetings, appointments or just casual dates with German friends if you want to fit in in Germany, leave home a bit earlier and plan to be on time.

But if you are going to be late – make sure to call or text the person to let them know in advance.

2. Understand how Germans tell the time

Crucial to being on time is understanding how to express time in the German language.

When taking your first steps in German, you probably already learned the slightly confusing way that Germans express the half hour: where the “half” refers to the hour that is approaching rather than the hour that has begun.

14:30, for example, is expressed as halb drei (half three) instead of halb zwei (half two) as in English.

But things can get even more complicated when it comes to speaking about quarter hours.

While many Germans will express the quarter hours as in English – with 14:15 as viertel nach zwei (quarter past two) and 14:45 as viertel vor drei (quarter to three) many Germans – particularly in the east of the country – refer to the approaching hour instead of the hour that has already begun.

So 14:15 would be viertel drei (quarter three) and 14:45 would be drei viertel drei (three quarters three).

If you can’t quite get your head around that, just be sure to double-check the time meant when making appointments.

3. Don’t cross the road at a red light

In many European countries, it’s acceptable to cross the road when the pedestrian light is red if the road is clear.

But in Germany, people wait until the pedestrian light has turned green – even if it means waiting on the side of the road without any cars going past.

This is partly because there are jaywalking is illegal in Germany and also because people just generally follow the rules.

If you do decide to cross the road on a red light and there are children around, you may well find yourself being reprimanded by other pedestrians for setting a bad example.

READ ALSO: Is it ever acceptable to cross the road at red light in Germany?

4. “Prost” properly

Numerous people celebrate at the Spring Festival in a beer tent in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

“Prost” is the German version of “cheers”. 

If you have a drink with a group of friends or colleagues you should expect to toast with “prost”, to clink your glass with everyone else’s and make eye contact with each person.

Not only is it considered polite, but failure to lock eyes could result in bad luck. At least according to some locals.

READ ALSO: 10 weird taboos you should never break in Germany

5. Be ready at the check-out

Being at the check-out in a German supermarket can sometimes feel like an Olympic sport. Most shop assistants won’t assist you with your bags and are more likely to check through your items at lighting speed and expect you to keep up.

So, be ready for the challenge. While you’re waiting in the queue, put your groceries in a strategic order, i.e. heavy items like bottles and potatoes first and lighter items such as eggs near the end.

Also, have your bags out, open and ready to load.

6. Get a filing system

The digital revolution hasn’t quite conquered all areas of German life yet, and government authorities and health insurance companies still love to send out paperwork.

While many of the documents you get through the post in Germany can go straight in the bin, there are certain documents that you are obliged to keep hold of for a certain number of years.  

If you’re self-employed, for example, you are obliged to keep your tax documents for ten years.

The best way to keep track of your paperwork is to get yourself a filing system. This can be as simple as a couple of ring binders but can make your life in Germany a lot easier.

READ ALSO: 13 things foreigners do that make Germans really uncomfortable

7. Join or start a Verein

Germans love to organise themselves, which is probably why there are around 600,000 Vereine (associations) in the country, covering all manner of hobbies and interests, including artistic associations, garden allotments, citizens’ initiatives, self-help groups, remembrance committees, carnival clubs – you name it, there’s probably a Verein for it. 

Members of the Meerdeerns e.V. (Sea Girls) club swim in the water in mermaid outfits in Neumünster. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

An official Verein can be recognised by the two letters added to its name: e.V. which stands for eingetragener Verein (registered association).

Starting your own Verein can be very beneficial, as it enables access to public tax funds, is less bureaucracy than other legal entities and there is no personal liability of members.

8. Get letter notifications

A well-kept secret that can help your life in Germany is to get a free post notification service.

If you sign up for a GMX or email account or get the Post and DHL App, you can get a free notification telling you which post has been sent to you, including a photo of the envelope. 

The service, called Briefankündigung (letter notification), notifies users in advance of incoming letters, postcards and magazines by e-mail.

9. Get insurance

While not compulsory, private liability insurance is widely seen as essential protection against the risk of harming another person or their material things.

A man spills tea over his mobile phone. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Zacharie Scheurer

Under German Law, there is no ceiling on the level of damages an individual could have awarded against them for an act they committed, even innocently, or for the misdeeds of their pets.

Almost nine in ten Germans have Haftpflichtversicherung (personal liability insurance) and if you want to fit in, its probably best to get it too. 

10. Always carry cash

Germans love cash and in many bars and restaurants throughout the country,  you won’t be able to pay with a card.

Even though card payments and digital banking are gaining in popularity in Germany, there are many places that will still only accept cash. Or the staff will grudgingly dust off the card reader so someone can pay by card.

So, to avoid feeling like a tourist that is inconveniencing someone, always carry cash.