Lifting the Maypole is an adventurous Czech spring tradition. The pole has to be lifted, guarded and cut down and should your maypole get stolen, shame will fall upon your village…
Lifting the maypole is a way of welcoming the spring. Traditionally the máje, mája or májka would be lifted on the 30th of April (the day of the Burning of Witches) or 1st of May (the day of love). Sometimes the maypole will be lifted later, just before the Hody festival.
What is máje?
Máje (Czech name for the Maypole) is a pole made from a conifer tree, less commonly also a birch tree. The tree has to be very tall and straight. The bark is peeled off, all the branches are cut, except for the very top of the tree. A green wreath is hung just below the top and the top as well the wreath are decorated with ribbons. The decorated tree is a symbol of spring and love. Sometimes smaller Maypoles are placed all over the village/town and earlier boys used to build them also in front of the houses of their girls.
Lifting of the Maypole
Traditionally it was the young lads of the village (those leaving for the army) whose job it was to lift this symbol of spring and to take care of it. However, nowadays it’s all and any men who want to do the job. Lifting the Maypole is difficult and you need people who know how to do it as well as the muscle. There are two traditional ways – with ropes or with smaller poles tied to the Maypole, the latter one being probably the most traditional.
The whole process starts usually weeks before in the local pub when men get together and delegate the tasks – who buys the tree and brings it, who prepares it, who digs the hole for the Maypole, you need trucks to also bring the smaller poles….many glasses of beer are drunk before all arrangements are made.
The lifting itself is a social event, an occasion for the whole village to gather, drink beer and cheer for the men lifting the pole. It tends to be a long process (two hours isn’t uncommon) as after each lift the position of the pole needs to be checked and decided, what’s next.
The video below shows the traditional lifting using smaller poles. After the initial lift smaller poles are tied to the Maypole in a zigzag manner and these poles are then used to lift the Maypole and move it to the sides:
Guarding the Maypole
The hard work doesn’t stop when the Maypole is lifted. Tradition dictates that the young men from the village should try to cut down and steal the poles of the neighboring villages. And so, logically, the lads from each village also guard theirs. Night watches are established as the stealing should happen any time from sundown to sunrise or, alternatively, until the first crow of the rooster. Sometimes this lasts only a few days, other times until the Maypole is officially cut down. One thing doesn’t change – it’s a great shame to have your Maypole stolen.
However, this tradition is dying out as some of the villages who have been shamed decide to notify the police and the “winning team” from the neighboring village is fined.
Cutting down the Maypole
The pole is cut down at the end of May or after Hody, which can be months later. And just like the lifting, the cutting down is a social event often accompanied by music and evening dances.