Greek May Day Customs and Traditions
May Day has its roots in ancient times. It is the first day of May and the 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.
The ancient celebration of May Day continued throughout the centuries with solemnity through various customs and traditions. One of the oldest celebrations was the Anthesteria, the first ancient Greek flower festival.
Anthesteria included various processions were ancient Greeks would carry flowers to the sanctuaries and temples. The flower festival was first established in Athens and later in other ancient Greek cities. When the Romans arrived and conquered Greece, the May Day celebration continued to exist in some form but it was slightly changed, since both Romans and ancient Greeks believed that flowers represent the beauty of the gods and bring power, glory, happiness and health.
In the Aegean islands, young girls used to 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.
Over the centuries, the original meaning of May Day was altered and the ancient Greek customs survived as mere folk traditions. May Day is one of the few holidays without any religious content and is celebrated in most European nations.
Nowadays, in Greece, one of the most popular traditions of May Day finds its roots in antiquity. People pick flowers and use them to create a May Day wreath that will hang on their door until it goes dry. The wreath making process is supposed to bring people closer to nature, especially in this day and age where people are consumed by their busy city lives.
In several villages across Corfu, residents walk around holding a cypress trunk, covered with yellow daisies. The trunk, also called the Mayoxilo, 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.
Finally, one the most popular Greek May Day traditions is fire jumping. Women of every age gather the night before May Day, after the sun sets, and light a fire using dry branches that they gathered over the past days. When the fire is lit, the women dance around in a large circle singing folk songs about May and spring. The young children wet their hair and clothes and jump over the fire as a symbolic act that will keep away winter and disease.