Thursday, May 3, 2012

May Day Recollections

We've experienced our first German May Day! Interestingly, I'm no stranger to this holiday. My hometown is tiny and rural. The school celebrated May Day up until the time I entered maybe 7th or 8th grade. Looking back, I'm not sure our "tradition" made any sense except that we did have a May Pole. 

Each May Day, grades Kindergarten through sixth grade would be dismissed from our usual duties and retreat to the football field. For weeks leading up to this, we had all been practicing the dances we would perform for our parents and peers. Each grade was assigned a different dance/theme. When I was in Kindergarten, we dressed up in hula skirts and swayed our hips to a song I remember being called "The Rockin' Hula." Then we grabbed some bubbles and blew them to the beat of Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles." I didn't know until years later that the song wasn't referring to the soap bubbles coming out of our wands. Instead, all of us five-year-olds were performing to a song about the tiny bubbles that form in a glass of wine. Strange.

Mexican Hat Dance
In second grade, we performed the Mexican Hat Dance. My teacher allowed the girls to choose their own partners. I had my eye on someone but right before selection time, my "best friend" waltzed over to me and sneered, "If you pick him, I'll never be your friend again." Astonished, I watched helplessly as she sauntered over to my longtime (since first grade) crush and staked her claim. Girls are so mean to each other! Fortunately, the guy I ended up with was debonair in his own right. Who can argue with how great he looks in a sombrero?

I can't remember why, but May Day was canceled during my third grade year. It's too bad because if it had happened, my class would have dressed in a weird kind of boy-girl peasant garb and trotted around the football field to the raucous tune of "Little Brown Jug."

In fourth grade, it was a traditional square dance. The boys swung their partners 'round and 'round and of course we all dosey-doed. Fifth grade was similar. Everyone was dressed as "mountain folk" and we performed a strange, galloping dance to Alabama's "Mountain Music." 

May Court
Sixth grade was the big year. All of your elementary life was spent leading up to this May Day. Most of the sixth graders were responsible for stringing the May Pole. But six lucky girls and boys were chosen by their peers to be on the May Court. These veterans of the May Field wore huge, flowing gowns and svelte suits. They were the first ones to perform and they waltzed to Cinderella's "Once Upon a Dream." It was an awkward experience because, well, it's an awkward age. Practices often resulted in nervous fits of laughter as we avoided eye contact while we were instructed to hold onto each other. 

After we performed the dance, we were ushered off to a corner of the field where we "presided" over all of the performances. Looking back, I am both amused and befuddled by my little school's interpretation of May Day.

It's safe to say that Germany's May Day bears no resemblance to the one of my youth. Traditionally, boys spend the night before drinking and riding around in trailers pulled by tractors. Loud music blares from speakers as the guys gear up to profess their love for a lucky girl. Throughout the night, birch trees disappear  from forests. They are festooned with streamers and propped against the girls' homes. Some guys prefer instead to use beautiful heart wreaths specially-ordered from florists. 

Our Lucky Neighbor's House
I wasn't sure if I'd be able to see any of these declarations of love up close. All night long, I could hear the distant thump of music and a chorus of adolescent laughter echoing through the village. I kept looking out the window to see if there were any birch trees walking around in the darkness. Finally I decided that there must be no young girls living in our neighborhood and I went to sleep. Several hours later, lights and shadows playing over the wall awakened me. I jumped out of bed and looked out the window. I was delighted when I saw a gaggle of boys swigging Bitburgers and propping a ladder on the house across the street! I woke up my husband and we watched Romeo and his friends hang a lovely heart wreath on Juliet's house.

I continued to hear music and laughter throughout the night and when May Day morning arrived, we were once again delighted by the sights and sounds of another love-struck boy positioning his wreath on a house in our neighborhood. By now it was obvious that these suitors had spent the entire night drinking. As the tractor pulled over to let them out, I saw some stumbling around and relieving themselves on various shrubbery. Their ringleader stayed in the trailer and sang along to classic hits such as "My Heart Will Go On," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," and "How Do I Live Without You." It was hilarious. 

The Love Tractor
May Day Boys

Later we went to Geilenkirchen to find the May Pole. We were disappointed to discover that the big celebration happened the previous night. We did locate the May Pole and from the looks of all the debris  cluttering the ground, it was a great party. At least we know the drill for next year.

Geilenkirchen May Pole
When we arrived home, we hopped on our bicycles and set off to find other adorned houses in our neighborhood. 

I think the entire thing is very charming. I can't imagine anything like this happening in America; an age-old tradition coupled with sanctioned underage drinking would never be permitted. If these boys were caught attaching trees or wreaths to houses in a typical American suburb, they might be met by an angry father wielding a shotgun. Here in Germany, the youth are given the green-light to profess their blossoming love. As I took photos, one mother came outside and was happy as she gazed at her daughter's birch tree. Perhaps she was fondly remembering the May Day that her husband sought out the perfect tree with which to proclaim that his heart belonged to her.

There is no contest between May Day in my hometown and May Day here. Hula skirts and square dances? No. I'd much rather have tractors and birch trees.

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