1 May – a holiday with many facets

On 1 May, people throughout Germany celebrate the end of the cold season. A number of colourful customs and traditions get people out of their houses. But the day also has political significance: Many trade unions stage campaigns and events to draw attention to the importance of the workers’ movement.

Like every year, this winter was long and cold in Germany, so people are particularly looking forward to spring this year. 1 May is a very special day in this context. Germany has a large number of colourful traditions for the May holiday to celebrate the start of the warmer season and clear out the last vestiges of the dark months.

Dance into May

Celebrations already begin on the evening before 1 May. In many areas of Germany, young men put a ‘May tree’ in front of their girlfriend’s window during the night. These are usually young birch trees decorated with colourful ribbons. The young men go into the woods and cut down the birch trees themselves, under the strict watch of the foresters.  Incidentally, in leap years (i.e. years in which February has 29 days), it is the young women who get a May tree or a ‘May heart’ for their sweetheart. On 30 April, there are numerous dances in the towns and villages, known as ‘dance into May’. These may be fairly traditional celebrations, but an increasing number of clubs now organise May parties.

May dances, May wine punch and May pranks – traditions on the May holiday

Traditions on 1 May differ greatly from region to region. In addition to the May tree, a May queen and a May king are elected in some places, for example. This is a particularly important tradition in the villages and communities of the Rhineland and is even published in the newspapers. In Baden-Württemberg, people play May pranks, wrapping public wells or monuments in paper, for example. In a lot of German places May fires are glowing on 30 April. Deutsche Welle’s website shows photos of the various customs in the gallery ‘Hexentanz und Feuersprung – Bräuche im Mai’ (‘Witches’ dance and bonfire leap – May customs’).


May tree: It is decorated with colorful ribbons and wreaths and positioned in a central location: The May tree represents a strong tradition in many German towns and villages. Frequently it also represents a token of love. Young men place it in front of their girlfriend's houses. Source: DW (c) picture-alliance/Helga Lade

Not just a day of parties: Labour Day

For many Germans, however, 1 May is not only a day of dancing and traditions, it is also an important date for society. Ever since the end of the 19th century, people have demonstrated for workers’ rights and highlighted social injustices on 1 May. The Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB) in particular organises large-scale events every year and uses the opportunity to bring labour market issues to the public’s attention. For background information on the history of 1 May as a day of workers’ protest, please visit the DGB website (in German only).

The demonstrations on 1 May are generally peaceful. Unfortunately however, there are exceptions: In the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, frequently riots have been taken place in the night before 1 May since 1987, with people setting fire to cars and buildings.

April 2019

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