May traditions in Germany: Colorfully decorated trees, scary witches — and protests

Witch with a green face (Photo: AP Photo/Frank Drechsler)

Witching and dancing: It's all part of the May tradition in Germany

Walpurgis Night

Witches have supposedly been gathering in Germany's Harz since the mid-17th century to light fires and "hold revels with the devil." The event on April 30 still attracts thousands of visitors, and is spread across 20 locations around the Brocken Mountain. The focal point is Hexentanzplatz (Witches' Dance-floor) in the Harz Mountains.

Witching and dancing: It's all part of the May tradition in Germany

May bonfires

Dancing around a fire is not just part of Walpurgis Night. People light big bonfires in villages around Germany. In some regions, a witch doll made of straw and old clothing is thrown into the fire to chase away bad spirits.

May tree decorated with wreaths and streamers (Photo: picture-alliance/Helga Lade

Witching and dancing: It's all part of the May tradition in Germany

May Day trees

Decorated with streamers and sometimes wreaths, May poles are erected on market squares in many German villages. But in other places, even in big cities like Cologne, young male suitors place May trees adorned with hearts in front of their girlfriends' houses.

Children dressed in traditional costumes (Photo: picture-allianz/Ursula Düren)

Witching and dancing: It's all part of the May tradition in Germany

May dance

Some like to jig around as a witch, others like a traditional folk dance. In southern Germany, young people don traditional costumes and dance through their village, singing songs celebrating the month of May.

Ravers at "Mayday" dance in Dortmund (Photo: dpa)

Witching and dancing: It's all part of the May tradition in Germany

Mayday

Then there's the more modern version of dance: "Mayday," Europe's largest indoor electronic music party. Here, ringing in the month of May means lot of bass and beats.

May punch (Photo: Fotolia)

Witching and dancing: It's all part of the May tradition in Germany

May punch

May punch is a beverage mixed according to people's old family recipes. A main ingredient, along with wine, is sweet woodruff. Fruit also takes a prominent role. Invented by a Benedictine monk in the year 854 as a "medicinal drink" to strengthen heart and liver, people nowadays enjoy drinking it on a balmy spring evening in a beer garden.

A heart drawn on the street with chalk (Photo: Fotolia)

Witching and dancing: It's all part of the May tradition in Germany

May stripe

Drawing a line with a piece of chalk to point out a romantic relationship between two people is an old tradition in villages in Germany and Austria. The line can meander all the way through the village, ending in a great big heart in which the initials of the people involved are written.

Witching and dancing: It's all part of the May tradition in Germany

May Day

Demonstrating rather than celebrating: May 1 is International Labor Day. For those employed, it's an opportunity to take to the streets to demand better working conditions. Such demonstrations occur across Germany each year, but they go back to the demands of Australian demonstrators on May 1, 1856 for an eight-hour work day.

Spring carnival

Witching and dancing: It's all part of the May tradition in Germany

May carnival

Carousels and cotton candy: in many German cities, carnivals kick off in May. It's not just a place to get a sugar high and play crazy games, people can also have fun on all sorts of rides.

Witching and dancing: It's all part of the May tradition in Germany

Mother's Day

Invented in 1644 in England, "Mother's Day" made its way to Germany in 1923, but the tradition of giving presents and flowers to one's mother didn't really take off until after World War II. Mother's Day is normally celebrated on the second Sunday in May.

Few months in the year can boast as many traditional celebrations in Germany as the merry month of May. Temperatures rise and with them, so does everybody's mood. The celebrations vary from region to region.

They're ready to dance again — all those witches and devils. On April 30, in the night to May 1, the Harz region of Germany sees all sorts come out of the woodwork. Thousands of people, mainly women dressed in witches' costumes, gather together and dance around bonfires during the famous "Walpurgis Night." And they can certainly kick off their shoes and dance the night away since the next day, May 1, is a national holiday.

Travel | 24.04.2018

The festivities are based on ancient folklore according to which witches were believed to fly on their brooms to the Brocken Mountain on the eve of May Day. Together with devils, they would celebrate the arrival of spring there.

Bright trees dot the landscape

May celebrations are not just about devils, witches and bonfires. There is also plenty of eye candy around: young male suitors decorate trees with streamers and place them before their beloved's home as a sign of love. Police have cautioned about cutting down small trees in the forest, however, because it is considered an act of theft and can be punished with a fine.

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Radio reports advise young men to buy their arboreal tokens of love at special outdoor markets or stands. Or, they can take advantage of a new "taxi" service in which specially ordered May trees are delivered to a young woman's doorstep. In southern Germany, people erect large May poles in the center of a market square.

Protests in Berlin

Things can get hairy in other parts of the country, however. For the past 30 years, there have often been violent protests in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin,​​​​​​ where more than 10,000 demonstrators voice their rejection of capitalism, racism and social ostracism. The past few years have, however, been more peaceful.

Click through the picture gallery above to explore Germany's unique May traditions; and below to relive last year's May Day protests in Berlin.  

Berlin May Day protests

Myfest celebrations

Tens of thousands of visitors attended the Myfest street festival in the district of Kreuzberg. With eight stages and hundreds of stalls, the police were hoping for a peaceful outcome.

Berlin May Day protests

Protests against rising rents

On the day before May Day, more than 3,000 people protested on the streets of Wedding against rising rents in Berlin. Police deployed more than 2,000 officers to deal with Walpurgisnacht events.

Berlin May Day protests

Three protesters arrested

Just three people were arrested and one police officer lightly injured at the Wedding protests. Walpurgisnacht has been become steadily less violent in recent years as police implement a policy of de-escalation.

Berlin May Day protests

Mayor Müller leads parade

Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, took part in the traditional trade unions' march through the city.

Berlin May Day protests

May 1, 1987

A tradition of May Day protests first started in 1987 when thousands of protesters forced police to retreat from the SO36 district of Kreuzberg. Hundreds of police were injured in subsequent years as protests gained notoriety.