Labour Day is a national holiday in Austria. However, unlike in Vienna and other European cities, where May Day is very much a celebration of the Labour movement, Salzburg largely still holds to the tradition of Maibaumaufstellen. Translated frequently as May pole festival, this means, literally, ‘May tree set up’.
We were still settling in last year on May Day, so we missed the festivals. For weeks afterward, as we toured the neighbouring area, we’d occasionally pass the tall bare poles, with greenery still wrapped round its height, red and white ribbons still fluttering. But how it worked or what the festivals entailed was vague to me. I still had images, I suppose, of dancing flower-decked maidens weaving satin streamers round the pole.
So Sunday morning, when I located a May pole celebration online, Himself and I left promptly. I didn’t want to miss the main event, which I understood started at 1 p.m. Sure, I knew, there would be beer and wurstl, and people milling around in bright coloured trachten, all afternoon; that’s to be expected. But I wanted to see what the May pole celebration itself entailed.
We cycled along the river and, south of Kapuzinerberg, turned east, toward the sloping foothills to the pretty village of Aigen, where a picturesque church – remodelled in the Baroque style in 1698 – rises over a broad green field. A few cars were parked along the edge of the green, and stalls selling beer, grilled meats and sausages, cakes and pastries, and coffee and tea had been set up. A brass band was settling in too. And away, at a corner of the field, hitched to small blue tractor, an enormous tree lay on its side, supported midway along by a gun carriage. A couple of dozen men, members of der Historischen Prangerstutzenschützen, the club sponsoring the Maibaumaufstellen, milled around it. They wore their club uniform of traditional velvet vests, leather jacket and felt hats. And, just as we rolled our bikes to a halt, a volley of shots from huge blunderbusses erupted. The celebrations were just barely beginning.
It was a cloudy day; rain was predicted, and it hung heavily in the grey clouds. It was a day when Ireland seemed no farther than the next field, beyond the thick line of mature trees so intensely green they coloured the very air. But looking up the field, past the row of stalls, the church with its onion-domed steeple could not be mistaken. Nor could the people, the women in dirndls and men in lederhosen, worn with the casually, with the insouciance with which jeans are worn in Southern California – or anywhere in America or in Ireland, for that matter. (In Ireland, I suppose, you would substitute track suits for jeans.)
We debated getting something to eat then, as 1 p.m. approached, or waiting until after the action was over. We were hungry, so we got some grilled chops with vinegary potato salad and slaw and chose seats at one of the many, mostly empty, tables. Near us, a group of young men in the careless assortment of lederhosen and heavy shoes and socks paired with tee-shirts and casual jackets, laughed and joked over beer and cigarettes. No one paid any attention to the group gathered around the tractor and tree.
But soon the tractor started rolling slowly toward the open centre of the field. Behind it, the members of der Historischen Prangerstutzenschützen formed an honour guard along side the tree. I jumped up with my camera, anxious to see all there was to see. Still, no one else stirred.
The tree, about two feet in diameter at its base, stretched over 100 feet long. Stripped of its bark, it shone a pale cream colour to its top, with was still covered with branches and green, like a diminutive Christmas tree at the tip of a long, tapering spike. Around the bare trunk were wound spirals of green decorated with streaming red and white ribbons. Circling the trunk, like twin rings of Saturn, were two wreaths of green suspended by wires. Midway between the highest of the wreaths and the tiny green top, broad stripes of red and white wrapped around the pole.
The tractor pulled the base of the tree toward a deep narrow trench at the top of the field, and slowly, very slowly, the men began inching the supports under the thick trunk backwards, so the base could be tilted into the trench. By now, I had begun to see that my anxiety not to miss anything had been unnecessary. Little did I know at the time it would take the 40 or so men over three hours to raise the tree fully upright.
Once the tractor was removed, they worked without any motorised lifts or support. Through a carefully choreographed process of supporting the trunk with large beams, they gradually shifted the gun carriage backward. As the treetop rose, inch by careful inch, they supported it with beams linked by heavy-gage chains that formed a kind of cradle in which it rested. They were directed in this by a kind of drum major, a man with a baton formed of a stick from which fluttered red and white streamers. Around the men holding the beams swarmed other men, some with long poles topped with a twin-spiked fork they jammed into the tree to reposition the chains, to add additional support and to mark the place that chains should go. Every so often the drum major would bark a command, the men would shove their weight into the beams, they would strain for a few seconds, the tree would rise, almost imperceptibly, and then they would rest.
Tied to their task, they stood in knots at various points along the ever rising tree, smoking and laughing at times. Occasionally others would bring them beers, ham-sized fists clutching the handles four or five heavy mugs in each hand. Desserts were brought out, too, which were eaten in some cases one handed, as the supports were held in place.
Around them swirled the crowd, eating, talking, drinking beer or soda or coffee, the children in their trachten standing at the edge waiting. About two hours into the process, the rain began, and the shoulders of the men’s leather jackets darkened with wet. Umbrellas bloomed in all colours over the watching crowd. Still the raising continued.
At last, though, sometime past 4 p.m., the tree stood erect and the twin wreaths of green swung around the posts levelly. Smaller logs were brought and a big, red-faced man grunted as he hammered them into the trench, firmly securing the tree. A chain saw was brought out to cut the logs even with the ground; I held my breath at each stroke, envisioning a slash across the trunk so laboriously put upright.
Now the fun for which the children had waited begun. A thick orange mat, like a donut, was put into position around the base of the trunk and children danced on it as the clamoured around the tree. A girl of about 10 put her arms around the base as others lifted her feet, trying to hoist her up.
Then a young man of about 20 stepped forward. Standing bareheaded in the light rain, he was stripped of his shirt, shoes and stockings. He had wet the front of his lederhosen, apparently to give them added traction against the smooth surface of the tree. But the rain had done its damage; the tree was too slippery and he could get no purchase.
One after another they tried. No one got more than a few feet up. One man, who approached it from the far side of where I stood, clung to it, arms and legs wrapped tight like bracelets, about 10 feet off the ground. Then he let go and dropped to the mat.
Austria it seems, is home to robust ambitions. The object here is not to dance around a pole with coloured streamers. No, here the goal is to erect a sturdy, tall tree and then climb it. And, perhaps, someone managed to reach as high as the dangling rings later in the evening. As for us, we collected our bikes and, sodden through and through, cycled back along the river and home.