CONTRIBUTED BY SARAH FORTE
Note: This article is coming out the the archives in time for Kerwe season in the Rhineland-Palatinate area of Germany. See if you can find any evidence of Kerwe in your town or village!
First it was a mystery. Then there were random sounds. Finally, it turned into a fun way to learn a tradition and get to know my German neighbors.
When we were on our initial search through the countryside in Rhineland-Palantine for a house, we sometimes saw what looked like giant feather dusters sticking out of buildings. One per town. The “feathers” looked like white strips of paper. “I wonder what that is all about, but first I need to find a roof to sleep under.”
The Mystery Deepens
Months past and then Ariel who reads Germany Ja and asked me, “We live in Jettenbach (which we just love) and I’ve noticed in every town there is a big pole with a lot of frayed paper or ribbon all over it. I have been trying to figure out what this is! In some towns it is multicolored, while in towns like Shweddelbach it is all white. I’d love to find out what the purpose/meaning is behind these big ‘ol poles!”
My curiosity was back about these poles so I tried to find out more. Ariel had even sent me the picture on the right, but how do you google something that you don’t have a name for?
I asked Germany Ja’s German friend Sandra about the poles. She is from a different part of Germany, and while May Poles are prevalent all over Germany and this part of Europe, she’s not sure about the “fluffy” poles.
I asked anther German, and he wasn’t sure either. He also wasn’t from this part of Germany. These two clues aren’t much to go on Sherlock, but I’m guessing it is something pretty specific to this part of Germany.
The Random Sounds
Let me tell you about the little town I live in. Its name is Quirnbach. It’s tiny; the last estimate was a population of 513. There are some Americans and Canadians living here, but all of my neighbors are German. My neighbors have horses and when we go on walks on the trails around the town we keep track of the kinds of farm animals we see. On a good day we can see chickens, horses, cows, goats, and sheep on the same walk.
As you might expect, the sounds we usually hear in the neighborhood are rooster calls. Sometimes the neighbors work on their cars. Sometimes you can hear the cars on the autobahn that runs near tiny Quirnbach.
On a recent Friday, there was a new sound past midnight: yelling. Maybe you’ve seen the e-card “Tell someone you love them today, because life is short. But SHOUT it at them in German, because life is also terrifying.” The point is, German phrases, however well intentioned sound a little scary if you weren’t brought up with German as your childhood language. Yes, the shouting was in German. We have acclimated very well to quiet nights and this definitely woke us with a start.
The second random sound happened the next night. This time there was loud music that started late in the evening and went on well past the time when we got up at midnight and shut the windows. The music was the familiar top 40 hits that are ubiquitous in America, Germany and anywhere else with access to YouTube.
The third random sound really kicked things off (a.k.a. I did more than shut the windows and go back to sleep). This time it was the middle of the day on Sunday, the music sounded even closer, but not like Taylor Swift, but more like a marching band.
As the catalyst for action sounded, I looked out my window and saw that there were people gathering in the street with random instruments. So I quickly found my camera, threw on some shoes and ran outside. What else would you do if you normally hear roosters and now there is a marching band?
A Very Small Parade
The band consisted of about a dozen people walking down the street playing German songs. Ahead of them was a group of young people dressed in black and white. The young group had a clear leader, who would lead the group in cheers while the band played. Even though it’s jumping ahead a little, let’s call this group the Straußjugend.
The Straußjugend and the band made their way up the small Haupstraße (Main Street) and stopped in front of one of the houses. Here is where the mystery starts to unwind. What do they bring out of the house? Yep, it’s one of those long poles! This one is very colorful with multi-colored strips creating the “feather duster” effect on the 15-foot pole. With a cheer, a few of the Straußjugend placed the pole on their shoulders and the parade continued.
By now the small parade was drawing a small crowd. Some people were leaning out their windows, while others came out to their front steps and took pictures, and some of these otherwise very reserved Germans were following the group skipping to the music. The entire group walked back the way they had first come from and stopped at the park about five blocks away from the house.
The band, the Straußjugend, and the pole stopped at the park and hoisted the pole into a fitting on one of the park structures. Two of the Straußjugend stayed on the ladder and the ceremony continued. “Ceremony” seems to be the only fitting word to what I was seeing. The top young man on the ladder added a top hat to his outfit and started to read from a black binder. I wished I knew more German so that I could catch more of what he said. The other guy on the ladder seemed to have two jobs: keep the top guy well supplied with drinks and lead more cheering.
A rhythm was soon established. The reader read a rhyming verse from the binder. Each verse ended with a German phrase I could understand, “and the music played.” On cue, the band would strike up a verse of their own. During the music, the lower man on the pole would lead the Straußjugend in cheers.
There was quite an audience for the proceedings. One busy lady was making sure that everyone had the beer they wanted and the rest of the crowd listened intently to the verses. They laughed and ribbed each other as the verses went on. Finally, the top-hatted reader tossed the remainder of his drink onto the pole, everyone cheered and headed into a small fest-tent.
Meanwhile I watched in amusement from the back of the crowd and snapped a few pictures.
As the crowd migrated to the tent, I saw my “in.” Her name is Annie and she’s my neighbor. Annie knows everything about everyone: who they married, where they are from, when was the last time they left town, but best of all, she is fluent in English!
I greeted Annie and tried not to act too much like an interrogator as I asked about what I just seen. We started at the park and then she said, “Now we will go home and have coffee and cake.” The explanation was served with a side of neighborhood gossip and took a few hours.
I can’t share the coffee and cake. I’m pretty sure you don’t care about the latest Quirnbach gossip, but I can share what I found out about the mystery pole and the festival surrounding it.
The festival is called “Kerwe” and as I had guessed about the pole, it only takes place in this area of Germany. Each town and village takes turns having Kerwe over weekends lasting through the summer. I’m sure each community has their own traditions surrounding Kerwe, but this is what I found out about Quirnbacher Kerwe.
The Straußjugend are the young people of the community who made the pole. The pole is called the Kerwestraß. One translation for strauß is bouquet (another is ostrich, but I think bouquet is more fitting).
The sound of yelling on Friday night was the Straußjugend finishing the Kerwestrauß pole. The tradition is to protect it from the neighboring towns. So they hide the Kerwestraß somewhere in town, but create a lot of noise all over town to confuse any interlopers. (I didn’t try to argue that most interlopers would have been more fooled by quiet sneaking.)
On Saturday night, the young people of the town have a party, hence the loud popular modern music that night.
The festival has close ties to the church. Traditionally the Straußjugend are the youth of the community who have recently been confirmed in the church. Yes, that makes them teens, and yes, there was drinking involved in this festival. Their parents were there and culturally this is normal and healthy to the Germans.
Sunday, after church, the younger party is over and the festival for the whole town begins. The Straußjugend go and retrieve their Kerwestrauß from its hiding place and bring it to the gathering. From the ladder the Kerweparre reads from the Kerwebibel (Kerwe Bible) about the amusing happenings of the town in the past year.
I asked about the Kerwebibel and learned the Straußjugend wrote it in the months leading up to the Kerwe. I imagine them working on the pole in someone’s garage while they are also trying to remember what’s happened lately and put those events into a rhyming poem. Like I said, Quirnbach is small and I didn’t notice too much change during the year. When dug a little further I found that one of the funny verses was about Quirnbach residents who bought a boat. Another verse is about a inebriated bike rider who talked to his bike while riding.
The Kerwepräsident was the leader of the cheers, which are called the Kerweruf. The cheers are alternating calls between the leader and the other youth. They are along the lines of American sports cheers, “Who are we? The knights! What do we want? The win! When do we want it? Now!” In this case it was more about who is going to pay for the drinks, but you know, same kind of thing.
I mentioned that the lower man on the ladder seemed to have two jobs and it looks like these are sometimes split between two people. Besides leading the Keweruf, he also kept the reader well hydrated. Another name for this job is Mundschenk, otherwise translated at “cupbearer.”
What happens to the Kerwestrauß when the festival is done? It seems to have different fates depending on the tradition of the area. It can either be stolen by the neighboring town, buried on the last day of Kerwe (one would presume for protection from being stolen), or it is left up until it either rots and falls or is taken down for the next year’s pole.
That brings us back to Ariel’s frayed white poles. If they are left up for the year, the streamers will be bleached white by the sun and get a little frayed. I imagine the town feels a little bittersweet when it sees the pole in the middle of winter. The town residents remember the warm days in the summer when the past year’s events were read aloud and the pole was first displayed. And they look forward to next year’s Kerwe.
Do you have a German mystery for us to solve? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org and together, we’ll find an answer so that we all learn more!