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May Day!

The Viktualienmarkt is a daily food market and a square in the centre of Munich. It developed from an original farmers' market to a popular market for gourmands. Photos: Shutterstock

The Viktualienmarkt is a daily food market and a square in the centre of Munich. It developed from an original farmers' market to a popular market for gourmands. Photos: Shutterstock

Firetrucks and firemen, tracht and dirndl, beers and pretzels, and a few thieves, Veronica Stivala was a witness to the eventful raising of the 35-metre-high Maypole in the centre of Munich.

The ominous grey clouds and nippy weather did nothing to deter the swarms of people, clad in their best lederhosen and dirndls in one of Munich’s most popular landmarks – Viktualienmarkt, the food market on May 1. The dark brown shorts, worn with a colourful waistcoat adorned with careful stitching, as well as the brightly hued apron, dress/skirt combination, over a white, puffy blouse bring with them a sense of occasion in Bavaria, in southern Germany. And the raising of the Maypole in the centre of this quaint market was definitely a day to remember.

May 1 is a day of celebration and a public holiday in Germany, making it easier for more people to attend such events. In true Bavarian style, people were already sipping beers from big beer mugs, and children were munching on their pretzels as they gathered late in the morning to watch the raising of the Maypole at noon.

In German, this is known as the Maibaumaufstellen – conveniently all rolled into one, typically long, German word! There were a healthy number of tourists too, who lifted their arms high, and climbed on boxes to get their best shots of an admittedly entertaining attraction.

The 35-metre-long pole was already in position, a mammoth, wooden, cylindrical log, painted in the traditional blue and white diamond-checker pattern; these colours are specific to Bavaria, and maypoles in other municipalities are other colours.

As we waited, one man ceremoniously added a few last touches of blue paint. Over and above this, the pole is adorned with special woodcuts depicting people dressed in traditional Bavarian attire. These figures change each time a new Maypole is made.  Interestingly, while there is always the raising of the Maypole every year, each individual Maypole is not replaced, and therefore not raised, each year. The last time the Viktualienmarkt Maypole went up was four years ago.

Indeed, the raising of the Maypole is not restricted to Viktualienmarkt and occurs in a number of locations around the country. With this tradition comes another, fun and cheeky one: the stealing of the Maypole. The raising of the Maypole is closely associated with the regional fire brigade or a similar club, who assist in the arduous task of lifting the large and heavy decoration – they use a crane attached to their truck to raise it.

And so with the advent of spring, comes one of the most charming and mischievous traditions of southern Germany that sees rival towns try to steal each other’s Maypole, at whichever club or venue it is being housed until May 1.

And this year, for the first time ever, a group of ‘thieves’ managed to steal Munich’s Maypole. Speaking of his thievery, the chief thief of the men’s club in the tiny town of Neufunsing told daily newspaper, the Münchener Tageszeitung: “That was the high point of our careers so far.”

Teaming up with residents from the nearby towns of Hohendilching and Ismaning, the crew snuck into the warehouse where the Maypole was being stored and proceeded to load it into their trailer. The reward for a successful Maypole theft is traditionally a meal, accompanied by, of course, copious amounts of beer. And so the men met with the Munich Brewers’ Club to settle the terms for the return of the stolen log.

After much negotiation they settled for two hearty meals and some of Munich’s finest beer, sadly not managing to secure a free table at the city’s famous Oktoberfest.

The pole was thus returned in time for the grand celebrations to begin on May 1.

And so, with due pomp and circumstance, a small band of men wearing trilby hats, red jackets, leather shorts and knee-high white socks played their brass instruments as the Maypole rose on top of the on-looking crowd.

Munich’s bigwigs were present too, and the mayor of Munich, Dieter Reiter, also clad in his finest tracht, was there to inaugurate the Maypole and say a few proud words.

The Maypole will remain in the centre of Munich’s popular food market till the next May Day celebration. The next time you’re in Munich you can go and see it, and perhaps you should also drink a few beers and eat some pretzels with obatzda as you do!

Close up of the maypole at the Viktualienmarkt, Munich which is situated in between market stalls and which is a famous point of interest for all visitors of Bavaria.Close up of the maypole at the Viktualienmarkt, Munich which is situated in between market stalls and which is a famous point of interest for all visitors of Bavaria.

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