Lederhosen. Dirndls. Pretzels. Beer. And….Boys in Their Underwear Climbing Trees?
Although it may not seem like it at first, all of these things actually do go together – on one day of the year, at least. That day, May 1, is Austria’s equivalent of Labor Day. But instead of going to the lake one last time for the summer, the Austrian version of Labor Day looks a little different. Enter: Der Maibaum. The May Tree.
The Austrian tradition of Maibaumaufstellen, a long German word that simply means “putting up the May tree”, likely dates back to pagan times, perhaps a way for the Germanic tribes to honor their forest gods. First mentioned in Austria in 1230, the custom was eventually forbidden in the seventeenth century due to its “unchristian” origins. Fun-loving King Ludwig I, however, made it legal again in 1827, seeing tree-putting-up as a harmless activity that his people enjoyed.
And enjoy it they do…
Now, in the last few days of April, each Austrian village cuts down their own tree – as tall (around 100 feet high!) and straight as they can find. They then proceed to remove its bark and sand it down. After the tree trunk is as smooth as possible (read: ready for some shimmying), wreathes are placed at various levels at the top of the trunk.
But these aren’t any old wreaths. These are Austrian wreaths. And what do Austrians like best? Pretzels and sausages, of course. Each wreath contains some of these delicious edible goodies dangling down, ready for what is to come on May 1…
But what about thieves?
That’s right, I said thieves. Of course someone will want to steal this newly-decorated tree!
Who would dare to steal a tree, you ask? Enemy villages, that’s who.
Ok, well maybe not enemies persay. But the night before the festival, neighboring villages will try to steal other villages’ May trees. This is called Maibaumstehlen (the stealing of the May tree. The German language is nothing else if not logical). If they succeed, the decorated tree is eventually given back – but for a ransom. What that ransom may be depends on the village, but I’d bet it most likely has something to do with beer….
The big day…
When the morning of May 1 dawns, it’s time for the big day – the Maifest (May Festival). Lederhosen and dirndl-clad men, women, and children make their way to the local field to watch the tree be put back in the ground (it’s more exciting than it sounds – this tree is huge).
As you can imagine, putting a 100-foot tree back in the ground takes some time. And the required beer break by the tree-putter-uppers every ten minutes doesn’t help matters much. Luckily, there’s an oompa-loompa band to keep the mood high, playing top Austrian folk songs as the festival-goers watch the tree’s ascent. Some of my favorites – for Salzburg at least – are Salzburg’s state anthem, an incredibly catchy World War I military march about Salzburg, and Ein Prosit, the song where everyone has to completely stop whatever they are doing, cheers one another, and drink. If you’ve ever been to Oktoberfest, you’ll recognize that one!
But you mentioned something about underwear…
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget. After a good three to four hours of tree-raising, beer guzzling, and singing, the tree is finally up, standing straight and tall for all to see. And now it’s time for the real fun. The competition is set to begin. Men and boys hastily strip down to their underwear to prepare themselves to shimmy up this giant of a tree (okay, some to just their lederhosen shorts, but the more skin contact, the easier the shimmying, I’ve heard). Many girls participate as well, but they tend to be a bit more modest in what they remove. Unfair advantages, I say!
Why are they shimmying up the trees? To try to get the pretzels and sausages from those wreaths, of course! One at a time, children and adults take turns wrapping their limbs around the tree’s trunk, hoisting themselves up slowly but surely as the band plays encouragingly and the crowd cheers them on. But it is hard. Many a child, tired and perhaps embarrassed at all the individual attention from hundreds of people, gives up after a few minutes, but the bravest and strongest among them persist. As they get halfway up, the crowd’s excitement grows. Will they make it to a wreath? Will they get a pretzel? (Here’s where we hope no one tells them that pretzels are for sale on the ground, about 10 feet away from where they started their climb).
When the first person makes it to a wreath, the crowd goes crazy. But will they keep going? To make it to the bottom wreath is a feat in itself (seriously, look how high it is), but to get to the highest wreath is the ultimate honor. The first person to make it to the highest wreath will walk home with their head held high.
Maifest 2010 was the very first time I ever wore a dirndl. I had a wonderful time acting the part!
This year, Maifest is of course cancelled due to COVID19. But that will make next year’s all the better.
What about you? Would you try to climb the May tree for the reward of pride, glory, and pretzels? Or would you stay on the ground drinking beer and singing? Let me know in the comments below!