May Day

May Day

Article by Maria Broadley
Of all the months to get your gardening clothes on and take your trowel in hand, April is the busiest gardening month in the Greek calendar. There is such a vast amount of clearing, sowing, weeding and burning to be done before the long and incredibly dry summer begins in the middle of May. By then, most of the wildflowers are dying away, but there is the welcome appearance of various summer vegetables, including all the ingredients of the tasty Greek dish called ‘briam’ (baked summer vegetables). These include courgettes, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes – a sure sign that summer is on the way.

But here on Skopelos, one does not have to work hard to reap the glories of nature: a short walk anywhere on the island will allow you to marvel at the explosion of greens, yellows, whites and pinks coursing through the countryside that, until a few weeks ago, had seemed dead to the world. Wildflowers are at their best in April, ensuring that waysides, hillsides and scrubland are at their prettiest. In the countryside March asphodels are withering, but bright scarlet poppies sway in the spring breeze or blush as a mass of red behind an old whitewashed wall. There is also the Long-Headed Poppy to be found, which tends to come out a little later and is more pink than red. Take care though, as one brush of the hand is enough to see their pretty petals fall to the ground!

Another spectacular sight is the simple Rock Rose, also known as Cistus. Seen in abundance at this time of the year across meadow land, pine forest, hill and mountain side, the purple grey-leaved, the white Gum, and the Sage-leaved rock roses are bushy evergreen shrubs that are looked upon as weeds in Greece. Hardy and long flowering, they survive well into early summer. Their orangey-yellow centres give a great look of depth to their rather papery petals and their thyme-scented perfume is truly Greek. The Gum Cistus is grown for its resin, ladanum, which is used as a base for various medications and some perfumes.

The large bushy, shrubby perennial Paris Daisy,  along with its relative the Crown Daisy –  all fondly called  margarita by the Greeks – dominate the towns and villages. The flowers of wisteria (nefrosia) – often called Glicini  meaning ‘sweet plant’ in Greece – are a vision of grace and beauty that embellishes so many houses, walls, banisters and rails; adding a bright canopy of purple flowers to archways, pergolas and trellises: this more than anything embodies the promise of Spring. Wisteria also symbolically echoes the events of Easter and the Resurrection: it must be beaten and scourged if it is to flower in abundance.

As you walk through the narrow streets of Chora, the air is heady with the scents of that other flower of Easter, paskalia (lilac), whose colour signifies the purple of royalty and of mourning, which is why many people – not just Greeks- won’t have it in the house;  jasmine (ismini meaning Gift from God and said to attract love, wealth and prophetic dreams);  and the snow-white orange blossom (portokalia). Indeed, thick, velvety white petals of the bitter orange tree whose fragrance floats on the night air and perfumes the dawn, breathe out one of the most important and ancient scents in perfumery – neroli – which also alleviates insomnia, anxiety and depression.

A symbol of purity and virginity, orange blossoms have been used throughout history to represent fertility and good fortune at a wedding. In Greek mythology when the goddess Hera married Zeus she was given orange blossoms by Gaea, the goddess of earth and fertility. Similarly, in Roman mythology Juno received orange blossoms when she married Jupiter. The pure white of the blossoms signify innocent love and the evergreen nature of the tree stands for the everlasting nature of that love. In Greece the expression ‘go gathering orange blossoms’ means ‘go to search for a wife’.

This is the time of year when the locals collect great bunches of chamomile flowers, which are left  in the sun for some days until they dry out. This is for chamomile tea, which is not only popular for its taste, but also as a cure for all ailments from tummy aches, sore eyes and wounds – it’s a favourite Greek remedy. It is also the tea, sweetened with honey, which will be prepared if you visit a village house and decline a coffee.

All of these flowers are also used for a more aesthetically pleasing pastime – that of the making of the great ‘stefani’ Protomaiou (May Day wreath), which as the name suggests, is prepared on May 1st .

May Day is a public holiday in Greece and wears a double face. Here, as in most countries all over the world, it is a national day honouring the worker and supporting their rights: powerful trade unions demonstrate in the streets and worker’s groups are active on this day, striking and protesting. Athens’ annual May Day March, which by tradition starts outside parliament in the city’s Syntagma Square, predictably ends in clashes between police and a small number of hard-core protesters. For outsiders, it can be alarming when mass protest marches degenerate in such a manner, but in Greece, strikes and protests are a national pastime with their own rituals and culture. Small protests over specific issues occur on an almost daily basis, but the biggest ones are amorphous gatherings of people with many different causes and grievances: anti-globalization, anti-capitalist, anti-war, pro-worker, pro-immigrant, pro-animal rights. This year, of course, May Day comes in the midst of an economic crisis and hard times, so governments across the continent are bracing for large protest marches and potential violence.

Skopelos, however, is much more low-key and the day is usually marked by the playing of stirring music over the community kafenion loudspeakers as men gather and drink coffee on a welcome day of idleness. The islanders here honour the other face of May Day, the one connected with spring blossoms and flowers, which has its roots in ancient pagan holidays. The ancient Minoans are believed to have celebrated one of their two ‘New Year’ celebrations about this time – the other was in October: they honoured Rhea, Mother of Zeus. In later Greek mythology, celebrations took place in the names of Demeter and her daughter Persephone: Demeter controlled the plants and the fertility of the Earth and she was Goddess of Agriculture; her symbol is an ear of wheat. Persephone appears as a beautiful young  maiden, on the edge of womanhood: her symbol is the pomegranate.

Skopelites fashion the flowers, vines and leaves they collect on May day into wreaths  as a household decoration, displayed on a table or hung on a door. However, in ancient Greece beginning around the sixth century BC, wreaths were a common personal adornment. Worn on the head as a sort of crown, wreaths not only served as decoration but often indicated a great honour, such as a victory in war or an achievement in work or study.

In ancient Greece people felt their connection with nature deeply, and nature was given importance in the religions of the day. For the Greeks of around 500 BC, many flowers and plants had special meanings, and often gods and goddesses were identified with certain plants: therefore, the wearing of plants had a certain significance. Though women did weave some flowers and leaves into wreaths to wear in their hair as simple decoration, other wreaths were only worn on certain special occasions. For example, those who celebrated the wild rites of Dionysus, the god of wine and merrymaking, often wore wreaths of grape leaves and ivy.

At Greek weddings wreaths signify mastery of the bride and groom’s home. These wreaths, the Stephana, are bound by a single cord, a cord of love and commitment. The flowers represent romance and life’s sweet blessings. As they are crowned, bride and groom are forever united. Brides often wear orange blossom, which originally represented fertility because of the fecundity of the tree which can produce many fruits and will often have blooms and fruits on the tree at the same time.

Another occasion that called for wreaths in ancient times was athletic competition. The most famous of these were the Olympic Games, which were held every four years in the city of Olympia in honour of Zeus, the most powerful of the Greek gods. Young men came from all over Greece to compete in the games, and winners were honoured with crowns of olive leaves.  Here on Skopelos at Agnontas, the alternative port for the island, there is a modern commemoration to the athlete Agnona, an ancient victor of the Olympic Games who  won the running competition in 569 BC. According to legend, the victor disembarked here on his return from the Games. His countrymen named the spot after him as a mark of respect and to honour him, today’s bay still bears his name.

Other games were held in different places, honouring different gods  and each had there own particular wreath. Winners of the Pythian Games, which honoured the god Apollo, received wreaths of laurel, which was sacred to the god. The Isthmian Games, held in the city of Isthmia, featured victory wreaths made of pine, while the Nemean Games, held in Nemea, a valley northwest of Argos, offered leaves of wild parsley.

Victorious generals were crowned with wreaths, as were priests and priestesses performing religious rituals. Along with living heroes the Greeks also adorned statues of gods, goddesses, and famous mortals with wreaths: an olive wreath engraved on any Greek statue, even modern ones such as the one at the old port of Chora, signifies the perpetrator of an heroic act.  Since ancient times, wreaths have also been used to honour the dead: laurel leaf wreaths are placed on the memorials of Greece on March 25th  to commemorate the winning of Greek Independence.

Leaves of the grapevine were used to make the wreaths worn by actors who performed in the famous Greek theatres, and laurel wreaths were placed on the heads of poets and scholars who were honoured for their work. Olive wreaths hung on a Greek door during the fifth or sixth centuries BC announced the birth of a baby boy. It was fashionable at the time for Greek women to adorn their hair with elaborate jewellery, and some wore wreaths made of gold leaves.

On Skopelos, as Protomaia is a national holiday, the custom is to get out into the countryside and collect spring flowers to make into a May wreath to hang  on doorways, balconies, in chapels, and many other places: taxi drivers especially make wreaths for their cars and fishermen adorn their boats. The wreaths have been made by Greeks for thousands of years in order to signal people’s pleasure and excitement about the new beginning of nature and their hopes in life for peace and happiness. It is an extremely sociable event as friends will often go back to each other’s houses to make them. School children will also make a wreath to take home to their parents, so front and back doors will always find themselves adorned!

People have a break with a picnic in the countryside, listening to traditional music and dancing. This national holiday really signifies the end of bad weather and the promise of better months ahead, and there is a general feeling of excitement and well being on this day: Skopelites enjoy Kefi (good mood) to the full.  Daughters-in-law traditionally collect flowers and other fruits of nature’s bounty to give to their mothers-in-law and there is generally an exchange of home grown, or home baked gifts. Should a friendly neighbour bring you some flowers, or eggs, or vegetables, remember it is bad manners to give back an empty dish and instead reciprocate with something home made of your own.

Kalo Mina!

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