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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries


Some excitement here: the Google doodle for today is of Thuringian gnomes. Much more about them when we reach the Gnome Museum towards the end of next week. But today is May Day. I had forgotten, so my brush with a broadsword will have to wait.

May Day is very special here. There's an expression Alles neu macht der Mai (May makes everything new) and it does feel like a new beginning here in the lee of the Harz Mountains. It's a national holiday and in Frankenhausen yesterday, we joined in the Tanz in den Mai in the town square – with sausages and the specially brewed Maibock. We lasted until 3am, so a slow start this morning. Actually, a hangover. Bock is a type of strong lager that originated in Einbeck. When the brewers in Munich discovered it, they pronounced it as ein Bock (a billy goat) and the name has stuck – as has the prevalence of billy goats on the labels. Maibock, as the name suggests, is brewed especially for the May festival and is a bit lighter in colour – but at 7% alcohol, still a threat to one's well-being. As a student I did vacation work in Border Breweries in North Wales and for Charles's Investiture we brewed a special celebration ale, called the Prince of Ales, to the maximum alcoholic level that beer can reach (16% from memory). A chap new to the brewery rather liked the taste and drew off a couple of pints, ignoring the advice of his fellow brewers. The night shift found him later, unconscious, on some hop sacks. He recovered, but he shouldn't have worked in a brewery. When I returned the next year, he was drinking 15 pints a day during his twelve hour shift. Last night was not drunken. It was very jolly and today for lunch we are having more beer and sausages and the brass band is playing as the maypole is manfully pulled up into position. I haven't seen it happen, but apparently there is a friendly tradition of stealing maypoles. People from the nearby town or village will sneak in, take the maypole and then return it only for a king's ransom in sausages and beer. And they will go to any lengths. There is a famous story of one town hiring a helicopter to zoom in and lasso a maypole. But I am wrong to call it a maypole: in Germany, it is a May Tree, cut from the forest. In some parts of Germany, Maibaumkletterer compete in climbing races up May Trees.

The association with trees, of course, harks back to an ancient forest culture. In the Rhineland on May Day, young men put branches wrapped in bright ribbons in the gardens of the girls they want to marry. On leap years, the girls get to place the branches. Another nice German tradition is the Maistrich: lovers draw a chalk line connecting their homes. There is a darker side to May Day where we are now, in the towns around the Harz Mountains. Der Erste Mai is an ancient festival to welcome the spring but also to drive away evil spirits. The night of April 30th is Walpurgisnacht or Hexennacht and on this night witches meet on Brocken mountain. The women of the towns around the Harz climb to the peak to dance with the devil and leap through the flames of hell. We saw some of the women returning, dressed up as witches, exhausted and slightly singed from the pagan revels. The same sort of thing happens on Pendle Hill in East Lancashire on October 31st. Medieval Lancashire was a home for witches and now thousands of people climb Pendle at Halloween. So bad has it become that the police impose a one-way system on the surrounding roads: the devil is in the detour, as they like to joke. Pendle Hill is of course more famous for its association with George Fox. Here, in 1652, he had his revelation of a “great people to be gathered” - and so began the Society of Friends. Rather like the Quakers in America, who were at the forefront of the campaign to emancipate slaves, German Quakers opposed Jewish persecution, ignoring prohibitions against entering Jewish stores and refusing to say Heil Hitler – and they suffered accordingly. During the war, they were involved in the Kindertransport and, with American and British Quakers, in relief work that continued in the years after. Such was the contribution of the American and British Quakers that jointly they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize of 1947. But May Day in Germany has another, modern, side – protest. The day - also called, as in the USA, Labor Day/Tag der Arbeit - is a workers' holiday. Over recent decades has become a focus for protest groups, mostly left wing, demonstrating on issues such as workers' rights, the environment, and support for refugees. Last year, for example, German unions urged workers to take to the streets to push for a Europe-wide minimum wage. Berlin is the hotspot for protest. Traditionally it is a city of low rents and secure tenancies, but over the last decade new blocks have been built on vacant lots or in space made by tearing down old (tenanted) buildings. This process of gentrification is bitterly resented by the predominantly young population of Berlin and and in 2019 they staged an Erste Mai protest march. Things did not get out of hand, however, as they did in 1987. On that ill-fated May Day, shops were looted, cars were burned, and parts of Kreuzberg became a no-go area until the police moved in with tear gas and water cannon. Through the years and after reunification, May Day has remained edgy in Berlin: people expect some trouble. In 2014, some 25,000 people participated in demonstrations – but the violence has steadily decreased and the last large-scale attack on police was in 2009. These days it is possible to go to cheery food and music street parties in Berlin on 1st May – though not perhaps with the equanimity that one enjoys at the festival in Frankenhausen. Anyway, pinch, punch. Tonight is a time for recuperation – maybe a soak in Kyffhäuser Therme's Dead Sea Salt Grotto followed by a Salat Milano from Pizzeria Milano. There will be time for sausages over the weekend. Here is a film showing the two sides of May Day in Germany - This British Pathe film is of May Day 1938 - Germany and England playing soccer - And Margaret Almer, with her Bavarian Show Band, yodelling Greetings to You, Dear People on this sunny May Day -

Margaret started out as a dental assistant in Austria, which may have given her a yodelling advantage. Celebrating workers’ rights Many people organise protests, rallies, marches and campaigns for workers’ rights on May 1. Ever since the now-infamous workers’ strikes in the USA in the 1880s, May 1 has come to be known as Labour Day (Tag der Arbeit). Kreuzberg in Berlin has grown to be a focal point for campaigning for workers’ rights on May 1 and it continues to attract activists and public attention year after year.

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