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Art & Culture

Of Maypole Climbers & Maypole Thieves

The arrival of May is traditionally celebrated in Salzburg with the Raising of the Maypole. Spring provides the stage, while the starring roles are played by maypole climbers, maypole thieves, beautiful folk costumes and authentic folk music.

Markus, the Maypole Climber

He’s almost made it. The wreath above his head is practically close enough to grab, just a few more centimeters left to go. Markus scoots a little higher, the soles of his feet are burning from being clamped so tightly against the smooth pole. Once again he reaches out for the wreath of sausages, suspended tantalizingly above his head, decorated with colorful ribbons fluttering in the breeze. Far below, spectators who have gathered at the base of the maypole clap and whistle their approval. Shouts of encouragement and the upbeat music being performed by the village band reach his ears. Probably better not to be distracted, though, since he is so high above the ground. Looking down could easily cause his head to spin, which wouldn’t be such a good thing right now. Markus wipes off his brow as the sweat begins to trickle into his eyes, and summons all his strength for one final valiant effort. Peering into the brilliantly blue May sky, he reaches out again and spreads his fingers. And finally, he indeed manages to touch part of the wreath. His heart leaps for joy as he rips the wreath loose and raises it triumphantly. He did it! Everyone applauds, except for Markus, also inadvisable, and the band belts out a celebratory fanfare. Having successfully conquered the maypole, Markus gradually slithers down the polished trunk, his lederhosen actually helping slow down the impetus of his descent. Back on terra firma, his pals greet him with slaps on the back and a first well-deserved mug of beer – the cool brew is definitely just what the doctor ordered after such an exhilarating adventure. Just a little later, while Markus is still busy gobbling up a helping of fried chicken with a side of potato salad, the next daredevil maypole challenger is already up to some “monkey business” of his own.

From “Witches’ Tree” to Fertility Symbol

Climbing the maypole is just one of the folk traditions associated with May Day. Every year, right in time for the arrival of the “Merry Month”, maypoles are “planted” across the length and breadth of Salzburg, decorated with colorful ribbons along with sausage wreaths. It’s a custom that goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. Later, during a darker chapter of European history – the era of witch hunts – in the 17th century, raising the maypole drew lots of attention, though for different reasons: People thought that, especially on Walpurgis Night – the night before May 1st – scary witches and evil spirits were out and about and up to no good. This is where the tradition of removing every last piece of bark from the so-called “Witches’ Tree” came from: If you didn’t, they might very well hide right inside the bark!
The celebration as we know it today probably dates back to the 19th century. Since then, the maypole has been regarded as a symbol of renewal, growth and springtime. A sign that the bountiful time of year has finally returned.

Stealing the Maypole and Celebrating Spring

Nowadays, the de-barked, decorated maypole is generally transported into town on April 30th, then raised on May 1st as part of a big, colorful festival. However: On the night before May 1st, the locals have to keep a close eye on the tree, since yet another tradition encourages young lads from neighboring villages to sneak in and steal the maypole during Walpurgis Night! Which would be an embarrassing event, of course, so the local boys guard the maypole fiercely throughout the night. The next morning, assuming the maypole is still standing where it is supposed to be, the actual festival will get underway. After being stored away during the way-too-long winter months, lederhosen pants and dirndl dresses are pulled out of the closet and dusted off – then the celebrations begin! Accompanied by loud hooping and hollering, the maypole is traditionally hoisted using long wooden poles – in several stages, it goes without saying. Not just so that everyone can catch their breath, but also because the opportunity lends itself perfectly to enjoy a round of beer with your fellow hoisters. Even with the maypole standing tall and stout, the festivities are far from over. After all, you can’t celebrate springtime enough. Accompanied by folk music, all kinds of mouthwatering treats, beer and wine, the fun often continues until dusk, when finally the chillier air encourages even the hardiest partyers to return to the warmth of their own living rooms. And Markus? Well, he’s looking forward to next year, since he already has his eye on the sausage wreaths strung even higher up the maypole than the one he snagged today. The arrival of springtime seems to give us all an added surge of energy, doesn’t it?!

Raising the Maypole is an especially attractive tradition you can experience first-hand in and around Salzburg City. Here you will find the Maypole Events Overview!