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May poll

Categories: Features

Clare Finney talks to the Market traders about the May Day feasting traditions of their home countries

Image: Lucy Young

Officially, of course, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere is in March—either 1st March or 20th March, depending on whether you’re a meteorologist or an astronomer. The reality, in any region north of, say, Sicily is that this long-awaited season of sun and sharp fruitfulness doesn’t really get going until May.

Which makes 1st May—May Day, Primo Maggio, Vappu, Walpurgis Eve, Fête du Muguet—something of a party. The buds are blossoming, the cows are out to pasture (making milk and cheese ever sweeter) and asparagus and peas are showing their first tender shoots. From ancient times, celebrations have centred on the abundance and fecundity of nature at this time of year: the Romans set ‘lustful’ animals like hares and goats running rampant in honour of the nature goddess Flora, while in Britain the Celts crowned a May Queen and decorated bushes. Even the innocent-looking maypole dance began as a pagan fertility ritual, representing the union of the masculine and the feminine.

Fast forward to the present day, and the month’s festivities have become a heady mixture of Christian beliefs, Celtic ritual and a tradition, originating from a protest in Chicago in 1886, of marches and strike action in the name of workers’ rights. France, Italy, Germany and Russia all recognise the day as Labour Day, and it has become a focal point for protestors around the world.

Biggest, booziest holiday
In general, the further north you go, the longer the winters and the larger the May Day celebrations. In Finland for example, Vappu is one of the four biggest, booziest holidays on the calendar, while the Swedes start the day with strawberries and champagne.

Of course, where there’s a holiday—or even a slight sense of occasion—you can guarantee there’ll be food and drink involved. “The first day of May is a day off in France, so we drink lots of wine the night before and rest the next day,” jokes Jean of Une Normande a Londres. The main tradition, however, is the giving of the flower lily of the valley.

These small, aromatic flowers have been given out to loved ones ever since King Charles IX received one as a lucky charm, and every year henceforth decided to pass on the good fortune by giving them to ladies of his court. “We don’t eat them,” Jean hastens to add. “But we can do a gift box of cheese here, which you can eat!”—a delicious, logical extension of another old French May Day tradition, preserved in some rural areas, of drinking milk warm from the cow.

Myths and stories
The myths and stories behind May Day are many and varied. Yet whether it’s the Greek story of Persephone, forced to spend six months in the underworld, or the English character Jack in the Green, a drunken ruffian clothed in foliage, two themes remain constant: flowers (and by extension, herbs) and alcohol. In Romania and Finland they’ve succeeded in combining the two, the former with a wine flavoured with mugwort (the day is also known as Mugwort Day in Romania), the latter with mead made from honey and water. You can’t buy these in the Market—for better or for worse—but you can certainly buy the Swede’s May Day drinks pairing of choice.

“The first of May translates as Protomagia,” says Marianna of Oliveology, who grew up in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece. Their celebration refers to the coming of spring, and to Persephone’s rebirth after her stint in the underworld—“it is said that 1st May is the day she emerged from the Kingdom of the Dead and all the trees blossomed in awe of her miraculous rebirth.”

The Greeks celebrate by weaving wreaths out of wild flowers—“Everyone does it! Families traditionally spend the whole day enjoying nature”—and having glorious picnics: “freshly baked bread, olives, Greek salad with feta cheese, wild oregano and olive oil, pastries and pies. These are just some of the lunch basics.” The wreaths go round their heads and hang upon their doors.

Al fresco dining
In those climates that lend themselves to al fresco dining—and even in those that don’t quite yet—picnics are the order of the day. “The food they eat depends on the region, but they all picnic on Labour Day,” says Ewa from Bianca e Mora of the Italians. In the region her stall represents, Emilia Romagna, this means charcuterie, fruit mustard and cheese. It means wine and, for the serious picnickers, a barbecue and even fresh tortellini pasta. Generally speaking, though, say the chaps of the aptly-named Drunk Cheese stall, anything goes—so long as it’s fresh, al fresco and there’s booze aplenty.