About 15 years ago, just a few months after moving from Chicago to a tiny hamlet in the Umbrian countryside outside of Assisi, I was lying in bed at about 2 am in that state of semi-consciousness between sleep and lucidity, when I heard what was unmistakeably the sound of footsteps, and lots of them, on our gravel drive. I immediately found myself wide awake and focused on the sound, growing louder and closer, as it was punctuated by the muffled crash of a flowerpot being stumbled over, a whispered oath, and some quiet laughter. I heard another stumble and a quick, low, discordant wail.
I elbowed my Italian husband. Hard. “Honey,” I hissed, “There are burglars outside!” He was instantly awake and jumped out of bed, throwing his pants on fireman-style. “How do you know?” he hissed back. “Because I can hear them walking on the drive. They keep tripping over flowerpots. And I think they’re carrying a dying cat with them.”
At which point he froze, with one pant-leg on and one off, in a hunched over flamingo position, and considered me. Because I have been known to make use of–ahem–comic embellishment in the past. And suddenly I could see his eyes clear with a dawning realization, as he slowly straightened up and said, “Oh, it’s the first of May tomorrow.”
“What, you get burglarized on a schedule?!?” I replied, incredulous.
Of course we weren’t about to be robbed, but instead serenaded by a group of locals who were carrying out the ancient tradition of Cantamaggio, or “singing in” the first of May, which symbolically marks the end of the long winter and beginning of spring with song and drink. And more drink. And then, a little drink.
With origins which can be traced back to cultures predating the Roman empire in an area covering what is now the central Italian regions, during the final night of April groups of folk singers with accordians, guitars, wooden recorders, and various simple percussion instruments, including tambourines and triangles, wind their way through the streets of town and from one farmhouse to the next in the countryside singing traditional folk songs.
The simple yet cheerful rythmic songs are sung—generally alternating between a solo voice and a chorus–in Italian, though usually in a strong, at times almost impenetrable, dialect. The lyrics ostensibly touch on themes of nature and the seasons, primarily spring, but are laced with double entendres and baudy wordplay…in fact, after the serenade is finished the singers, with much raucous laughter, invite their wakened audience to return to bed and “seed May”.
Out of context, the Cantamaggio may appear as simply charming and theatrical, but this ancient folk tradition reflects one of the primary threads which weaves itself through rural culture and tradition in Umbria: the rewards reaped for generosity and altruism and, on the flip side, the misfortune brought on by avarice and selfishness.
The songs of the “maggaiaoli” were once—and to a certain degree, continue to be—believed to have quasi-magical powers, invoking fertility charms on the fields and livestock depending upon how generous the serendaded families were in offering the musicians food and drink. This reciprocity represents a theme which is one of the primary cornerstones of peasant life: giving in order to receive, from eating less wheat today in order to plant more seed tomorrow to helping out family members in the present in order to call on their aid in future times of need.
So before you return to your bed, it is good form to pass around wine to toast the musicians and the change of season. The “maggiaioli” are then sent off with fresh eggs and salame for their breakfast when the night’s festivities are completed and May has been, once again, “sung in”.
P.S. You can read about the Cantamaggio in Tuscany here.