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Society

In Germany, say 'I love you' with a birch

Forget a bouquet of flowers or box of chocolates. In Germany, many young men reveal their love and woo the the object of their affection with a giant tree. It's part of a May tradition that has continued for centuries.

When a young German woman wakes up on May 1 and spots a birch tree outside her window, decorated with ribbons and streamers, she will know that she is loved.

She may or may not know by whom, however. Boyfriends and secret admirers have been wooing the targets of their affection for several centuries by pinning up birches in the night of April 30.

Hundreds of years ago, when the Maibaum (May tree) tradition began, Germany's forests were larger, the trees more plentiful, and the young men more skilled in felling them. These days, however, the modern male has more options for acquiring a birch.

The tree man

Wolfgang Bongardt, from the regional forestry service at the Kottenforst forest in Bonn, has seen many a cavalier collect a tree for his sweetheart. Having worked in forestry for over two decades, he describes the pandemonium at his local office on April 30 each year: "From midday onwards we can expect 500 to 600 trees to be picked up. The guys come in trucks, in cars, and sometimes with some rich parent's Mercedes."

His trees are collected from a two-hectare patch. Over the years, Bongardt has noticed that the buyers are getting younger. Perhaps it's peer pressure, or simply a burgeoning youth interest in this old tradition, but boys as young as 15 or 16 are now participating.

"They come in friends' cars or their parent's cars, and then they realize that the car won't fit a 15-meter tree, so it gets trimmed," he explained. "Sometimes they end up trimming the tree so much that it becomes very small!"

Younger and shorter

Jonas Käter, a 26-year-old from Cologne, got his girlfriend a birch tree last year and decided to source a small one from Ikea. The size didn't diminish its impact, however.

Jonas Käter

Jonas Käter is planning to up the ante this year

"When she saw the May tree she jumped on me and gave me the longest kiss of my life and then she cooked my favorite dinner," remembered Käter. "This year I will have to go one up and get a bigger May tree, even if I have to steal one."

This year, the social media manager is considering other alternatives like an online delivery service.

While Käter's last May Day turned out happily, the dim hours between April 30 and May 1 can also bring theft and mischievous games. Once the tree has been erected at its destination, the love-struck young man is expected to guard it for the remainder of the night to prevent it from being stolen by a rival.

Watch duty has its advantages, though. Often working in teams to transport and set up the tree, for many boys this is a chance to down a few beers with their friends, while they wait for sunrise and a sign that their amorous feelings are indeed requited.

Everyone is a winner

Twenty-one-year-old Max, also from Cologne, is particularly looking forward to celebrating the act of putting up his tree. "We're going to get some beer, just relax and listen to some music until 2:00 am, and then we will start to set up," he said.

The girls, on the other hand, eagerly await the clear light of day on May 1. According to tradition, they are expected to cook dinner for their admirers in return, as Käter's girlfriend had done.

During leap years, however, the ladies have a bit more planning to do: The tradition is reversed and they are expected to surprise their crushes with a tree.

After May 1, the trees are left in place for the rest of the month, come rain or shine. Many years ago, the girl's father would take over its protection. At the end of the month, the boy would give a small gift like a crate of beer to the girl's father in order to "buy" back his tree.

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