Yesterday was May Day. I remember in grade school how we’d learn the maypole dance, weaving colorful ribbons around the tetherball pole, trying to keep an over-under pattern going from top to bottom but failing miserably because we were kids and didn’t care and wanted the ball back on the pole because we’d rather play with that than a bunch of ribbons.
Where I grew up, May meant burning and tilling and planting. Celebration came at the end of the month during Decoration Day (now referred to as Memorial Day). On that long weekend we’d get bunches of peonies, visit the graves of relatives and leave the flowers, then go to a lake cabin because summer had officially begun. Only schoolteachers cared about May Day.
Then when I was forty, I lived in Germany, in a small village with a stream and a castle. That’s where I really learned about May Day. More like the night before May Day.
My village, like the other few only a couple kilometers away, chopped down a tall pine tree, stripped all its branches except a top triangle, and took it to a central spot. Not necessarily the village center, like where the volunteer firefighters gathered for a response, but a spot that had both a vantage for all occupants and some type of fortification. In my village, this spot sat on a ridgeline near the church.
They decorated the pole with colorful ribbons and flowers, then hoisted it with fanfare in that visible spot. For a few days I watched the ribbons billow in the breeze. Then the night before May Day, the village illuminated it and hunkered down. By that I mean they encircled it and partied all night. Music, laughter, storytelling, and of course, beer. All of a sudden, a cry would come, and groups would peel off. We’d hear a ruckus. Then they’d return to the party.
What I didn’t know was each village made an attempt to steal the others’ pole. All in good fun, of course, and if caught, the other party usually had to hand over some schnapps to the “victors.” But the all-night party was actually an all-night stake-out to protect the pole.
Leave it to the Germans to find a way to make perimeter defense into a party. But everyone in the village banded together in support of their maypole. Old rivalries got forgotten. The celebration of winter’s departure meant one day where the village took priority over everyday lives.
I grew up in a small town with family ties there traced back a hundred years. Never had I felt more a part of a community than during those maypole nights in my German village…where I was a true foreigner.
Maybe those schoolteachers had a good reason to try and teach us the maypole dance.