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Umbria Brings in May

Anne Robichaud

My husband, Pino, and I had been working the land here outside of Assisi for about eight months and collapsed into bed exhausted on April 30th (1975) - as we did most nights in those days! At around 2:00am, robust, joyous male voices awoke us, singing under our window, accompanied by rollicking accordion music and the jangling of a tambourine: our first introduction to the maggiaioli! ("May singers"). We had no idea what was happening since the cantarmaggio ("singing in May") tradition has no roots in Sicily (Pino is from Palermo) and certainly not in Milwaukee, Wisconsin! Only rarely now do the squadre (groups) of the May singers roam the Umbrian countryside on the vigil of the "birth" of May, singing in the arrival of the month of flowering, fecundity and fertility. So rarely in fact that the accordion, tambourine and voices singing under our bedroom window last year at 3:30am had us bounding out of our beds in elation! The maggiaioli were back! A few new faces joined them but some of the same ones as that night in 1975.

Back then, we did not know how to receive them: this time we did. We joined them outdoors first and clapped as they sang to us and then invited all the brigata into our home for vino rosso and cake (had we known they were coming, salami, capocollo, bread and prosciutto would have been ready, too). Sustenance is needed: the maggiaioli had been singing since about 10pm and would sing all night from house-to-house, until voices and strength gave out late the morning of May 1st.

The songs of the maggiaioli

The songs of the maggiaioli celebrate the arrival of spring

We no longer have chicken, ducks, geese, turkey and guinea fowl so we were not able to give the traditional gift of fresh eggs. In past times, most of the farm people were mezzadri ("share-croppers") and had little to give the maggiaioli except the gifts from their farm labors. May is the month of fecundity, fertility and regeneration as all of the natural world moves into cycles of reproduction: eggs are a perfect synthesis of all that May represents. The maggiaioli used to sell all the eggs they collected in a night of singing to finance a huge meal together some weeks after April 30th.

Their May songs (cant'arrechia - "sung by ear" - as no music is read and the songs are passed down) generally begin with an invocation to Maria to bless them and inspire them with harmony as they sing their jocund songs (and often with a bit lascivious!) about fecundity, fertility. Ah, this pagan-Christian mix so inherent in all Italy's festivals! After all, the Church declared May the month of Mary in order to supplant the orgiastic rituals in honor of the goddesses Flora and Bona during that month. The rebirth of all of Nature - the flowering and germination of plants and flowers, the sprouting of the new wheat, the birth of lambs and fowl - is lauded in the May songs.

A few years ago, we experienced yet another Umbrian May ritual, grounded in Christian tradition but celebrated with a decidedly pagan flair: the Festa di San Pellegrino (celebrated with the "piantarMaggio" - i.e., "plant May") tradition in the tiny village of San Pellegrino near Gualdo Tadino (on the road to Gubbio). My husband’s friend - born in San Pellegrino - had told Pino about the festival and we knew we simply could not miss it.

As advised, we arrived at San Pellegrino at 10:30pm - just as the towering poplar tree was about to be hauled up into the main square at a dead run. An enormous poplar had been cut down and then cut width-wise into two pieces. The trunks had been bound together, side by side, with massive ropes. The enormous "grafted" tree was laid across wheeled carts. Over a hundred men in burlap tunics (the "sackcloth" of the roving "holy pilgrim", i.e., San Pellegrino) were lined up on both sides of the bound tree, grasping ropes which would be used to haul the tree to the main square.

The run, hauling this monolithic tree, would soon be taking place for the 1004th time! According to legend, in 1001 on a stormy night, a bedraggled pilgrim and his companion knocked at the gate of the castrum ("castle", though the fortified castle is gone). Ermanno, the castle lord, scornfully sent him away. His daughter dreamed of the pilgrim, suffering the cold out in the storm and the next day, she sent vassals out in search of the pilgrim. The "holy pilgrim" (San Pellegrino) and his companion were found dead under a bridge - but his pilgrim's staff had miraculously sprouted branches overnight. Ever since that year, the townspeople in May haul a poplar up to the main piazza and "plant" it, in memory of the San Pellegrino.

The massive poplar represents the bastone ("staff") of San Pellegrino - but the festa is - logicamente (this is Italy!), a pagan-Christian mix. The tree is obviously phallic - and the phallic symbolism becomes more evident as the night wears on!

Shortly after our arrival, a shout announced the start and with energizing cries, the men took off, dragging the poplar uphill to the main square at a dead run as they war-whooped, proceeded by younger boys in torches running ahead of them (light and fires, were an integral aspect of the springtime rituals in all ancient cults). Observers had come from far and wide (all Italians) and the excitement was palpable as all surged towards the main square.

And then the shaving, chopping began: they chopped off all the branches of the tree and slivered off the bark (women and children scrambling for lucky pieces of bark and for branches). They cut a longitudinal wedge along the upper part of one of the poplar tree trunk halves - and along the lower part of the other poplar trunk half. The cutting, chopping, shaving lasted until nearly 2:30am. All watched in fascination, chatted, and visited the food tents for refreshments now and then. The children played with the pieces of bark and with each other.

At nearly 2:30am, the joining of the two trees took place - one trunk was inserted (grafted) into and onto the other - and then, finalmente - "il piantarmaggio" ("planting of May"): the victorious shouts of the crowd blended with the grunts of the men as they hauled on the ropes, slowly raising the tree, its trunk wedged into the hole dug out in the center of the piazza. May Pole.

The Grafted Poplar of San Pellegrino

The Grafted Poplar of San Pellegrino

The poplar tree stays in the central piazza of San Pellegrino throughout May as all come to gaze up in wonder and touch it, seeking the blessing of San Pellegrino... and probably oblivious to any other significance!

For more on May traditions in Umbria, read about the Corsa dei Ceri in Gubbio and Calendimaggio in Assisi.


Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2010. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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