May Day in Italy: An Ancient Festival of Flowers & Song

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Dance Around the Maypole, ca. 1625-1630.

The ancient springtime festivity known as May Day marks a period traditionally associated with flowers, abundance, and rebirth. Its observance includes colorful and merry singing rites, in particular troupes of flower-adorned musicians who frolic about country villages and sing auspicious, entertaining songs in exchange for offerings of eggs, wine, cakes and other sweets.

Similar to caroling, soul-caking, some forms of mumming, and trick-or-treating, these May Day folk performances have ancient pagan roots. In pre-Christian Europe, the night of April 30 initiated a crucial moment in the natural cycle of the year, one that marked the transition from spring to summer. (For the ancient Romans, February 1 was the first day of spring and May 1 the start of summer, which is why we still use the term Midsummer to refer to the summer solstice festivities starting around June 21 and culminating with the Feast of St John the Baptist on June 24.)

John Collier, Queen Guinevre’s Maying, 1900.

European cultures have observed May Day for millennia, from the Celtic Beltane to the Germanic Walpurgis night. In Italy, Calendimaggio (from the Latin calenda maia, meaning calends of May), goes by other popular names that reflect this day’s strong association with song: cantamaggio and cantarmaggio, both related to the Italian word cantare, to singWander about the country villages of Tuscany and other Italian regions on this day and you might catch sight of festive rural picnics, maidens adorned with flowers, and troupes of maggerini, the May Day singers who delight crowds with lively and symbolic maggi lirici (here the word for May, maggio, is the name of a type of rhymed couplet). The maggerini sing songs of rebirth, renewal, plants, flowers, and young love, always with a good dose of lyrical flair and wit.

Notable May Day events in Italy include the Calendimaggio Festival in Assisi and the Florentine Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Interestingly, the Florentine festival formerly called la maggiolata was rooted in medieval folk traditions with pagan roots practiced throughout the rural mountain areas surrounding Florence. In the 1930s, the folk practice was transformed into a modern, organized annual festival, the prestigious Maggio Musicale Fiorentino season.

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A 2015 poster for ‘Cantar Maggio’ organized by the Pistoia Mountains cultural association

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