Saturday, 9 July 2016

Love is a Birch

The photos above are of  "Maibäume", or "May trees" in Cologne. Traditionally on the night of the 31st April to the 1st May, young men would go out to the forest and find a birchtree, chop it down and decorate it with ribbons and a "May-heart" with the name of the girl he favoured on it. He would then put the tree up in front of her house to show his intentions.

Nowadays, the tradition continues, but it is illegal, in Cologne anyway, to just take birch trees from the forest. Now you are supposed to buy them from an official seller and can even get them delivered, erected and taken down by a "Maibaum-Taxi" service for a price, which doesn't sound quite so romantic.*

This being Cologne, home of the Carnival, there have been known to be shenanigens in the night to 1st May. Maibaums have been known to disappear in the night only to appear in front of another girl's house, the heart inexpertly replaced and another name scribbled on in Edding marker. An unguarded May tree on this night may be seen as fair game. The adventure of finding and putting up the tree is by tradition something you do with your friends. Defending or trying to steal another tree into the early hours just as much a part of it. To steal a tree after the 1st, is seen as poor taste.

The trees are supposed to be taken down by the 31st May, and in return for their efforts the boys (or on leap years, girls) receive a crate of beer and perhaps a kiss or an invitation to dinner.

In July then, when I visited my friends, I was surprised to see the Maibäume still hanging in there on the lamposts and guttering two months later. Were they still there to bring a bit of colour to the otherwise drab facades? Or were they abandoned by some spurned suitor? Were the owners simply "Angeber" or "show-offs", as one friend put it? All the green leaves, symbols of youth, Spring and renewal were long gone, the coloured crepe ribbons tangled and wind-swept. One heart devoted to "Maria" stood more like a paean to love lost, illusions stripped bare just like the brittle dead branches surrounding it.

Or perhaps the story is not so tragic. Maybe the Maibäume are still in bloom on social media, and can wither and overstay their welcome on the street. There is no need to take them down in "real life", as it is already out there forever.

Instead you can post clinking Emoji beer mugs as a reward (forget real beer crates) on Facebook and receive likes from your beloved (and his friends) in a new tradition of self-endorsement and mutual appreciation ad infinitum. Meanwhile the aging Maibaum, erstwhile a symbol of fertility, still clings to the guttering, now a reminder of youth and love's folly in the face of time.

Of course I have no idea why the Maibäume were still there, and it probably doesn't matter why. Though I am glad that they were. Otherwise I could never have photographed the Maibäume that shouldn't have been there on an overcast first day of July.  And found out what I probably knew all along; that love can be a real birch.

* I checked out the Maibäume-Taxi service  in case you might find yourself wooing a sweetheart in Cologne one of these days. It has ten options on offer, starting from 40€ up to 180€. Here is model 5:

"Tree option 5 for €100: Take advantage of the all-inclusive service and have a colourfully decorated Maytree complete with heart delivered to the address of your choice. There in the night to 1 May it will be put up between 20:00 and 07:00 and at the end of the month (at the latest 1 week of June) it will be picked up and disposed of. You will be notified by text message when the tree has been put up. You don't have to do anything. By special request you can have tree 5 with white/red crepe ribbon in Cologne 'look' / FC Köln club colours, or Düsseldorf 'look'."

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