In the spirit of May Day here is my blog entry from exactly a year ago, when I spent May 1st in a small village in deepest southern Germany.
Erster Mai is a big deal in Bavaria. There’s no school, no work, and copious amounts of lederhosen, beer and brass bands – but the main attraction of the day for every town centres around a selection of strapping young men straining themselves red in the face for a few hours erecting a gigantic phallic piece of wood. What could be more German?
The Mai Baum Aufstellung follows a highly regulated timetable (of course), involving all sorts of traditional theatrics and staged trials that must be overcome. Mehring and the nearby village of Raitenhaslach alternate annually as to whose village green is going to be graced with the May Tree, but every year the men of the tree-less village “steal” it the evening before (along with the five hundred litres of beer). It is then dramatically re-seized by its rightful owners, and as “punishment” the guilty men are forced to help erect it alongside their rivals. No modern machinery is allowed in this endeavour, but what really drags the whole process out is that every metre it is raised all the men stop and shout that beer and hearty victuals are needed to replenish their strength or they will BURN THE TREE TO THE GROUND. Everyone finds this make-believe hilarious because German humour is awful. Litre mugs of ale and enormous sausages are produced and passed around until everyone has decided they’re up to the task again, and then back to cries of manly exertion soundtracked by cheery Deutsch brass music. By the end of the proceedings most of the village could not walk in a straight line.
Marcus jokingly said to me “I bet you didn’t expect this when you moved to Bavaria!”. I rather think that this scene was EXACTLY what I expected when I moved to Bavaria.
Over lent a friend of mine decided that instead of depriving herself of something she liked during the run-up to Easter she would instead try something new every day. She managed to make so much of the project (aided by the fact that she lives in Paris, sigh), that I thought I would liven up the start of this boring term of finals doom and gloom by doing something I’ve never done before, every day of May. To start the month off with a bang, today I experienced Oxford’s traditional May Day celebrations – something I entirely missed in my first year as my party stamina just does not stretch to drinking and dancing all night and then standing in the rain until half 6 in the morning.
May Day in Oxford is a mix of traditions old and new. Clubs that normally shut at 2am keep their doors open until past daybreak, kebab vans run right through the night and at 6am the Magdalen Choir sings madrigals from the top of their college tower. I did not go out this time round due to a combination of apathy and essay, but a housemate and I dragged ourselves into the drizzle at half 5 to go and investigate the morning proceedings. I have to say that the thing I found most surprising was the sheer number of people willing to wrench themselves from their beds at such an ungodly hour (or power right through from dusk until dawn) to indulge in tradition. Magdalen Bridge was closed off, and the high street rammed full of people, food stalls and G&Ds balloons; there were keenos from the countryside dressed up as pagan spring welcomers, students scattered across rooftops and hanging out of windowsills, and a more concentrated density of Oxford Brookes students than I’ve ever seen outside of a Fuzzy Ducks night. Everyone gathered beneath Magdalen’s tower to await the singing, and there was something vaguely touching about people old and young, drunk and sober, local and rural crowded together for an event that hasn’t changed much in five centuries (story of Oxford amiright?). Admittedly nowadays the singing is blared out through speakers – my tutor told me that back in his day if the wind was unfavourable there was no chance of hearing a single note – but the effect was vaguely magical nonetheless. It was over within a few minutes and everyone wended their way back into the centre or crawled home to Cowley, whilst the marching bands and Morris Dancers roused the rest of Oxford.
The practice of students recklessly hurling themselves off Magdalen Bridge into the Cherwell below is also something of a modern May Day phenomenon, although fortunately I didn’t witness any attempts today – the river is only about 2 foot deep and jumpers rarely escape unscathed. The practice only became popular in the 1970s despite self-righteous claims of “ancient tradition”, butit did make me think about the patchwork of old and new that makes up our Oxford today. So I enjoyed May Day festivities, but before we get too culturally superior let’s not forget what I was doing this time last year in Bavaria.