Maifest/Mayfest: A tale of two revelries
  • The view of Maifest in Lincoln Square exiting the El from the Western stop on the Brown Line.
  • Before the entrance is a truck of German ale supplying beer to the stands around the square, enough to rival any 9 a.m. keg race.
  • The festival aesthetic remains the same across culture and age demographics; mainstays include flower crowns and port-a-potties.
  • Traditional German pretzels substitute for bagels as a carbohydrate-laden supplement for heavy drinkers.
  • Polka band Paloma plays the Main Stage, with act Polkaholics taking the auxiliary stage.
  • Festival-goers raise a toast with their commemorative steins.
Photos by author

I invite you to imagine a world free from the disappointment of a rained out Dillo Day. A world in which the beer flows readily from a van on the side of the road into kitschy steins instead of red Solo cups. A world where there are no superfluous wristband requirements, only tickets to buy you food items and fun in a carnival game, and the demographic is middle-aged adults and their young children. In this world, the sun is shining and it's a balmy 75.

I now invite you to open your eyes, because this Maifest exists, and this Friday I had the chance to visit it.

Maifest has resided in Chicago's Lincoln Square for the past 17 years, according to the official website, and is operated by "the Mayfest committee" (no, not that one). Both Chicago Maifest and our very own revelry of (almost) the same name are rooted the traditional German festival, hailing the arrival of spring. Traditionally marked by wrapping the maypole and crowning a May Queen, German Maifest celebrations are similar in nature to the more well-known Oktoberfest – both are usually outdoor public gatherings featuring food and liberally flowing liquor. Sound familiar?

My intentions in attending this festival were perhaps not wholly pure – who could resist pre-gaming Mayfest with another Maifest? – but my ambition proved to be an unexpected blessing when Dillo fell apart. While I was once an over-zealous freshman hoping for two days of fun at two contingently homonymous festivals, I am now a jaded almost-sophomore with just one under my belt.

The journey began late Friday afternoon, when I begged a friend to come into the city to cover a festival in Lincoln Square. The journey proved anything but easy when we missed the Metra and had to navigate an alternative route via the El. Sometime during our ride on the Purple, Red and Brown Lines, as well as a missed bus or two, we lamented the heat and humidity and felt grateful that Saturday's forecast wouldn't be quite as hot. Later that night, we would eat a German pretzel, Thai food and our words.

I'm not sure what I expected from this Maifest, but what I got was at once strikingly similar to and wildly different from my own (admittedly incomplete) Mayfest experience. In this strange two-block radius where I did not ostensibly fit in, having left my lederhosen, fair hair and light complexion at home, I felt half voyeur and half participant, with some elements familiar and others totally unexpected. German-American paraphernalia was peddled at every corner as polka music blared through speakers from two different stages, calling to mind memories of my own German mother's family reunions.

The line of port-a-potties, booth of cheap flower crowns and puddle of spilled beer at the entrance were eerily reminiscent of my Saturday morning. However, the presence of adults and small children lent an air of innocence and responsibility to the revelry, and made me remember this was a far cry from a college darty. An emphasis on celebrating German culture made our turning-up-for-its-own-sake seem frivolous and childish.

While the music selection at Maifest Chicago was certainly limited to one taste (polka, anyone?), it had some appealing attractions that Dillo Day is lacking. Across from the auxiliary stage, a row of carnival games promised treasures in the form of stuffed animals to anyone willing to press their luck and win. The probable age of the plush toys, gauged in cultural relevance (do kids even like Stewie from Family Guy?), made it readily apparent that winning was a more Herculean task than the encouraging vendors made it out to be. But what is a springtime festival without the youthful fantasy of winning a massive Fred Flintstone doll, regardless of the fact that America's favorite caveman has nothing to do with German heritage?

Admittedly, I found the festival overwhelming within the first twenty minutes of arrival, and the novelty wore off almost as soon as I finished the three dollar pretzel paid for entirely in big blue tickets. My friend and I came to the realization that this is the kind of place parents come to drink beer and temporarily escape the burdens of parenthood. We left and took off for inexpensive Thai food in Lincoln Square. With a "cultural festival" of our own going on the same weekend, it didn't really seem like Northwestern students would have a need to come to this Maifest.

And then the next day, the unthinkable happened. As a freshman with no appropriate basis for comparison, I suppose I'm not really qualified to compare my Maifest experience to my Mayfest experience. Both festivals may be over for now, but if you find polka music and German food palatable, it's certainly possible to pregame next year's Dillo with next year's Maifest. Perhaps the biggest bonus of my double-header was that entry at both festivals was free. I certainly wasn't expecting it, but given the unfortunate turn of events this weekend, Maifest was definitely the dankest thing I've done this quarter – in all seriousness, the festival benefits the local German center DANK Haus.


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