Beware of Hexennacht on the eve of May

by Gail Winfree
Stripes Europe

In Germany, April 30 is Hexennacht or witches night, which is the “trick” part of our Halloween's trick-or-treat. Traditionally, German youth make a joke out of making things disappear and wreaking havoc on this night. They hide garbage cans and outdoor furniture, remove garden gates, spread toilet paper rolls over streets, cars, and trees, and run through the streets making a lot of noise and creating mischief where ever they can. They ring doorbells, then run away, and they put mustard on door knobs. I’ve even seen a farm wagon placed on top of a bus stop shelter in our village. Don’t ask how.

Often, more destructive things, like lifting drainage covers in the middle of the road or moving traffic signs, happen. You should be aware of this when driving at night or the next morning because these actions create safety hazards and can result in property damage.

To avoid having to look for your trash can, doormat, flower pots, or any other removable item the next morning, make sure they are either out of sight or temporarily stored indoors. Park your car in the garage if you have one.

This is a convenient night for youngsters because the next day, May 1, is a German national holiday, Labor Day, and there's no school.

Witches night originated during pagan times when superstitions were taken seriously. People believed evil ghosts (represented by dark, cold snowy winter weather) met with witches and demons in the Harz Mountains on the night of April 30. Some even claim the Devil himself presided over this meeting. After a bit of rabble-rousing and mayhem, the witches and demons took off on broomsticks, pitchforks, and billy goats at midnight.

So what were the ghosts up to? Their plan was to prevent the so-called Queen of Spring from entering the country. Thus begins the battle between winter (evil) and spring (good) and the origins of many of today’s customs.

To protect themselves, local folks would hide their billy goats, pitchforks, and broomstick from the witches. Men made loud noises with guns and whips (current day fireworks) and lit fires (current day bonfires) to scare away the demons.

In some areas, cows were driven through the fire to secure their fertility, and young couples would jump over the fire to ensure everlasting love (wonder how that worked out).

Other customs included crossing socks on children’s beds, scattering salt and putting pentagrams at the entrance of homes, and smoking out houses and barns with herbs such as juniper and St. John’s wort.

Today, people don’t go to such extremes but many customs still live on. Probably the most common is the village bonfire that includes making a lot of noise and celebration as Germans Tanz in den Mai (dance into May) and welcome their “unofficial” first day of summer.

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