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The May Tree

Manfred Götzke (June 2007)

There are many ways to let a woman know that you fancy her. In the Rhineland, smitten young men take a more unusual path, placing a birch tree decorated with crepe paper in their beloved's front yard.

A May tree can make any woman happyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

When the month of April draws to an end in the Rhineland, the region's young women become increasingly unsettled. There's just one question on their minds: Are they going to get a May tree?

"Maybe from him? No, he definitely won't give me one," says Anke Baldus from Zons, a small village near Cologne. "And the closer May gets, the more jittery we become."

Maibaum an einer Hauswand
In cities, the May tree is simply leaned against the buildingImage: DW

For hundreds of years in this region around Cologne, Bonn and Aachen, young men have traditionally placed a so-called Maibaum or decorated birch tree in their beloved's yard in the night before May 1st.

Baldus estimates that over half of the young women in Zons get May trees. This often makes it worse for the others, she says.

"It's a huge catastrophe," Baldus says. "It means you're no longer popular and don't belong to the 'In-girls' anymore."

For the young women in her village, the May tree is a key part of growing up.

"It does shape you and that's why you already start at the beginning of the year on working to make sure you get one," she says.

Regulating the village marriage market

The May tree custom was originally part of an old tradition called Mailehenbrauch. This was a form of village matchmaking dating back to the 17th century. It involved "loaning" the unmarried young women of the village to the bachelors for a certain period, says folklorist Alois Döring.

"All of the unmarried young women in the village were auctioned off to the unmarried young men and each pair became a May couple," Döring says. "Whoever paid the highest price was the May King and he had the corresponding May Queen."

But there were very specific rules attached. Each May groom was required to put up a tree decorated with colorful ribbons for his May bride as part of this custom. And this tradition has stuck in many Rhineland villages until today.

BdT Maibaum 1. Mai
In southern Germany, men erect a May pole instead of a treeImage: AP

The actual purpose of it, though, has mostly been forgotten, Döring says.

"One of the fundamental ideas for the May auction was to regulate the village marriage market," he says. "It was an attempt to promote marriages within the village."

In order to maintain the rural structures in these regions, young people were supposed to be kept from marrying far away from home.

Today, though, the May festivities seldom result in wedlock. But they're still popular for flirting and as a place for singles to meet.

More than just making the girls happy

For the young men in the region, cutting down a May tree for their beloved is about more than just making her happy.

"It's the music and the beer, having fun with your friends while walking around in the woods and cutting down a tree," says 20-something Janusz from the village of Rheidt.

Karte Bonn Deutschland
The May tree is a tradition in the Bonn regionImage: AP Graphics/DW

Every year, Janusz and his friends head out into the woods armed with a power saw, two axes -- and five cases of beer.

"Alright, the nice part in the end is putting up a tree for your girlfriend," Janusz admits, though. "It's a good side effect!"

On April 30th, while the girls dance into the month of May in the village square, the young men deliver the long birch trees. These can be up to 15 meters high. They are decorated with colorful crepe paper and adorned with a giant heart-shaped sign with the beloved's name on it. The Maibaum is either set up in her inner courtyard or placed under her window.

When the girls look out the next morning, many ask themselves: who brought it? That's how it was for 30-year-old Anke Baldus, when she got her first May tree 15 years ago.

"You first had to have a huge girlfriends meeting," she says. "Then it was off to the village to ask people: who was at what May celebration? Who saw whom and could have transported a May tree like that?"

And sometimes the old May tree tradition regains some of its original meaning. Today, the young man who put that tree in Baldus' yard is her husband.