In Mühlhausen one is spoilt for choice with at least seven annual open-air festivities, not to mention countless musical and theatrical performances. Easter brings open-air concerts, a fair, an Easter Market and a big firework display on the ramparts. Early May sees the Peasants' War enactment and a mediaeval market. Also in May there is the Whitsun Festival on the three big market places with rock and country bands, which by no means only attract a youthful audience.
In June there is the Holzfahrt, a local tradition dating back at least to 1815, which commemorates the groups of townsfolk who drove their carts out to the forest to bring in logs ready for the winter. Local schools end their year traditionally with a very pretty ceremony round the source of one of the city's many streams. The timber-frame building erected in 1614 to house the celebrations is still standing today.
The entire last week in August is dominated by the City Carnival and the Altstadtlauf, a mini-marathon of 10 kilometres. In September follows the Mühlhausen version of Heritage Day when one can look into historic buildings not normally open to the public. As the city is full of historic buildings, a large number of the them lived in or places of work, this is a one-time opportunity nobody likes to miss.
In the early sixteenth century there were numerous peasant uprisings in Germany. It was the time of the Reformation. People were clamouring for the right to read the Bible in their own language and to determine their own destiny. This, of course, meant confrontation with the establishment, i.e. the Catholic Church and the ruling princes. It all ended bloodily in the Battle of Frankenhausen in 1525.
Two of the most colourful characters in this early radicalism were Thomas Müntzer and Heinrich Pfeiffer, who managed to persuade the citizenry of Mühlhausen in Thüringen to overthrow the Imperial City Council and set up their own on the basis that property belonged to all (except those who didn't follow their preachings). After the battle both were beheaded and their heads placed on spikes outside the city gate. All this qualified them for hero status in the German Democratic Republic, where they were seen as far-sighted early socialists. And before anybody says anything smug it is worth remembering that England had had one of the first peasants' revolts in Europe, in 1381, also ending in severed heads and hero treatment by political radicals ever after.
The episode in Mühlhausen has since become one of the City's major annual street events in a colourful re-enactment called the Peasants' War Spectacular (Bauernkriegsspektakel) Most of the parts are played by local people, while Thomas Müntzer's role is taken by the actor Ernest Goldhahn who makes a very convincing rabble-rouser. The following images are from the 2009 event which included also a busy street market in historical manner, music on historical instruments, jugglers, ballad singers and theatrical performances for children of Grimms' Fairy Tales.
Kirmes originated as a celebration of the saint to whom a church was dedicated (kir = Kirche, church + mes + Messe, mass) but it has long since become a general jollification combining a fair, a procession, much beer drinking and a great many rituals, some of the silly kind and some very picturesque. There is always a Kirmesbaum, a decorated tree, round which groups of children in costume dance, very like the English custom of dancing round the maypole. Nearly every town and village in Thüringen has its annual Kirmes in the summer. It has nothing to do with the carnivals that take place at the end of winter in the week up to Shrove Tuesday.
Kirmes in Mühlhausen is famous. It takes place in the last week of August and is the highlight of the year. It attracts crowds from all over Thüringen and beyond, and is, like Christmas, a time when families and friends converge from all the world for grand reunions. "All the world" literally because the economic situation since Re-Unification has driven so many of the younger generations to find work abroad. 30 different areas of the city, mostly church parishes originally, have their own Kirmesgemeinden where neighbours and families meet and plan their own contribution to the grand Kirmesumzug, or procession. During Kirmes week the Blobach, the wide square just outside the Frauentor, the city gate, is turned into a fairground as the second grand annual fair moves in. The roads are closed and the car-park ceases to exist, both of which disruptions are accepted with surprising good humour. The medley of music from all the different rides and stalls booms on till late evening and everyone in the surrounding streets is glad to have double-glazed windows. But, as people say here. anything is welcome that brings the population together, provides entertainment and encourages people to spend their money in their home town.
The week ends with a terrific firework display on the ramparts. And because the majority of buildings within the walls are timber framed and the city had some pretty disastrous fires in the past, the local fire brigade then drive slowly round the narrow streets checking all the roofs from their high ladder in case any rocket remnant has landed still smouldering in someone's gutter.
The grand procession lasts for about two hours and winds its way through the narrow mediaeval streets of the upper city to end on the wide Untermarkt around the Divi Blasii Church. The Kirmesgemeinden provide pipes and drums and colourful floats with often scurrilous themes from local or national politics, such as the Pope's travels in his Popemobile, the City's connection with the Brooklyn Bridge through its famous son, Johann August Roebling, the horrendous price of oil, or a major battle in 1866 during the Austro-Prussian War.