All the Good Things: The Foods, Customs and Joys of May Day

May Day herbs
‘le sette erbe di primo maggio’

The ancient springtime festivity known as May Day marks a period traditionally associated with abundance and rebirth, and represents a moment in the seasonal cycle to celebrate the virtual explosion of life happening all around us: herbs and flowers, springtime foods, lovers and longer days.

European cultures have been observing May Day for millennia. From the Celtic Beltane and Germanic Walpurgis night to Last of April in parts of Scandinavia, the period of April 30-May 1 initiated a crucial phase in the natural cycle of the year and heralded the transition from spring to summer. (For the ancient Romans and others, February 1 was the first day of spring and May 1 the start of summer, which accounts for the term midsummer to describe the summer solstice festivities starting around June 21 and culminating with the Feast of John the Baptist on June 24.)  

May Day lives on in various revived manifestations of folk performances, costumes, and re-enacted rites of pre-Christian Europe. Song and dance play a major role in these contemporary observances, in a manner reminiscent of other performative and calendar customs aligned with the changing of seasons, or the ‘portals’ of the cosmic cycle (wassailing, mumming, guising, trick-or-treating, and so on). 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 or cantarmaggio, both related to the Italian word cantare, to sing. Head out to the Italian countryside today and you might spot troupes of flower-adorned musicians frolicking about, singing their auspicious, entertaining songs in exchange for offerings of eggs, wine, cakes and other sweets. These are the maggerini, the May Day singers who delight crowds with lively and symbolic maggi lirici (a ‘maggio’ in this context is a type of rhymed couplet), songs proclaiming the joys of the season and young love, always with a good dose of lyrical flair and wit.

May Day is also the moment of seasonal transition in which it’s customary to bid farewell to the darkness of winter and attendant habits, and to clean out winter stores in preparation for the summer bounty to come. Some rather tasty and inventive recipes derive from this tradition, such as the vegetable and meat soup from Lucca called garmugia, and the dense and hearty legume and vegetable soup known as le virtù, originating in Abruzzo. Even the Sicilian and Southern Italian specialty macco di fave, which is typically prepared earlier in the year on or around the feast of Saint Joseph (March 19), falls into this category of ‘pantry’ soups crafted to make use of one’s stored goods, in this case dried fava beans.

To me, this is a day to rejoice in all the good things: precious springtime favorites like elusive and delicate wild asparagus or agretti, Maypoles and May wine infused with sweet woodruff, mint and fresh strawberries, women in pretty flower wreaths and men in luscious green branches, potent sensations of hope, change and progress as I clear out the cupboards and set a pot on the fire, and the near-intoxicating joy a bouquet of aromatic flowering herbs brings.

 Happy May Day, one and all. 

May Day May Horns
Yours truly at May Horns, 2017, Penzance