Whoever walks through the streets of Thessaloniki today, has the city as good as for himself. There is hardly any traffic, shops are closed and pedestrians can be counted almost on one hand. The reason? Today is May 1, Labour Day. As in many other European countries, also in Greece this counts as a national holiday. On this day, which they call ‘Protomagia’, the Greeks flock to the countryside for picnics and barbecues with family and friends. But on this Protomagia, which literally means ‘the first day of May’, nature and spring were already celebrated centuries before.
Mother goddess Maja
May, the last month of spring, is called Maios in Greek. This would originally refer to the name of the goddess Maja. In Greek, this meant mother and later midwife. Maja was the protector of fertility and everything that grows and blooms. The Romans also worshiped this Greek mother goddess. During their multi-day blossom party, May 1 was dedicated to her.
Dimitra, goddess of agriculture and fertility
The month of May was also dedicated by the ancient Greeks to the goddess of agriculture and fertility, Dimitra, and her daughter Persephone. Persephone had been kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld. Because of Dimitra’s anger, the flowers withered and died, the plants stopped growing and the landscape became empty and deserted. It became autumn and winter on earth. When Persephone finally returned to earth, Dimitra was so happy that nature was in full bloom.
Change of seasons
From then on, Persephone was allowed stay with her mother on earth for eight months every year. At that time the birds sing, the plants grow and food can be grown. In the four months of the year that Persephone is again held in the underworld by Hades, Dimitra is sad and growth stops. Thus the changing of the seasons was explained by the ancient Greeks. On May 1 they celebrated the ‘Anthesteria’, in which flowers were brought to temples and shrines.
Present traditions during Protomagia
Over time, the significance of 1 May has of course changed. Current customs are only folk traditions and the day is one of the few holidays in Greece without a religious background. Greeks now pick wildflowers, make a wreath of it and hang it at the door. Spring and nature are celebrated and the flower garland welcomes the power of nature in the house. In some parts of the country garlic is also processed in the flower garland, which is called ‘stefani’ by the Greeks. Garlic keeps the evil eye at a distance and in this way the house is protected against enemies and a good harvest is guaranteed.
A day outside the city and the making of floral wreaths brings the Greeks closer to nature and gives them the opportunity, together with friends or family, to escape their hectic daily life. Kali Protomagia!