This year, spring has come early to Greece (sorry, Canada). So, I’ve decided to celebrate May Day the Greek way–with a nice wreath of flowers. If you’re more interested in the International Workers’ Day of May and the Haymarket Affair, you can read all about it in last year’s post (if you haven’t already, you really should; it’s a fascinating tale).
As Greek Reporter explains, the Greek celebration of May Day has its roots in ancient times as a celebration of Spring. According to tradition, May was named after the Roman goddess Maia, which is the Greek word for midwife, nurse, and mother. Ancient Greeks had dedicated the fifth month of the year to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, and her daughter Persephone, who would return to her mother on that month after spending the winter with Hades in the underworld.
Anthesteria And Thargelia
One of the oldest celebrations was the Anthesteria, the first ancient Greek flower festival.
Anthesteria included various processions where ancient Greeks would carry flowers to sanctuaries and temples. The flower festival was first established in Athens before spreading to other cities, continuing through the centuries with little change.
A common May Day custom involved the annual revival of a youth called Adonis (or, in some cases, Dionysus or Maios–in Modern Greek Μαγιόπουλο, the Son of Maia) signifying Spring. In a simple theatrical ritual, a chorus of young girls sang a song over a youth lying on the ground, representing Adonis, Dionysus or Maios. At the end of the song, the youth rose up and a flower wreath was placed on his head.
Other experts trace the May Day celebration and the wreath in Thargelia (Θαργήλια), one of the chief Athenian festivals in honor of Apollo and Artemis, held on their birthdays, the 6th and 7th of the month Thargelion (about May 6 and May 7).
Thargelia included a purifying and expiatory ceremony. People offered the first-fruits of the earth to the gods in token of thankfulness. It was also a gesture of appeasement, lest the gods ruin the harvest by excessive heat or pestilence. A wreath was made using twigs from fruit-bearing trees, like fig trees, almond trees, or peach trees.
Echoes Of Time
Over the centuries, the original meaning of May Day was altered and the ancient Greek customs survived as mere folk traditions, May Day being one of the few holidays without a religious context.
Until recently, young girls in the Aegean islands would get up at dawn and walk to the wells, carrying the flowers they had picked the previous day. They would fill vases with the “water of silence” and return to their homes without uttering a word. Later, they washed using the same water.
Nowadays, the most common aspect of modern May Day celebrations is the preparation of a flower wreath from wildflowers. These are placed on a wreath which is hung either on the entrance to the family house/apartment or on a balcony. It remains there until midsummer night. On that night, the flower wreaths are set alight in bonfires known as St. John’s (Agios Ioannis) fires. Youths leap over the flames consuming the flower wreaths.
In other places, fire jumping occurs on April 30th. Women of every age gather the night before May Day, after the sun sets, and light a fire. They then dance around in a large circle singing folk songs about May and spring. Young children wet their hair and clothes and jump over the fire in a symbolic act aiming to keep away winter and disease.
Finally, in several villages across Corfu, residents walk around holding a cypress trunk, covered with yellow daisies. The trunk, called the Mayoxilo (May Wood), is encircled in a wreath made from green branches. The young men carrying it wear white clothes and red scarves as they walk around the village streets singing songs about May.