May 23, 2010

Il Maggio di San Giuliano: The Marriage of Trees and the Feast of Saint Giuliano the Martyr

Viva San Giulliano!
By Giovanni di Napoli
Remote Accettura lies in the rugged Southern Italian hinterland of Matera, a province in the region of Basilicata, also called Lucania. The small hilltop town boasts one of the oldest festivals in Italy, il Maggio di Accettura.
Some say the Maggio, or May Festival, predates the classical era by at least a millennia. Others, because of its similarities with the Germanic Maypole, claim the Lombards introduced it. Whatever its origins, like many other holidays, the pre-Christian fertility rite has been repurposed for the Christian observance. In a medley of traditions, "The Marriage of Trees," as the ancient ritual is known, is now happily associated with Accettura's patron saint, San Giuliano di Sora and the celebration of Pentecost.
Beginning on Ascension Day (Holy Thursday), a group of woodsmen search for and cut down the tallest and straightest tree they can find from nearby Montepiano. Called the "Maggio," the hewed tree is carried back to town on a train of oxen. On Pentecost Sunday, another group of men cut down a smaller tree from nearby Gallipoli Cognato, the forest on the opposite side of Accettura. This tree, called the "Cima," is carried back on the shoulders of the townsmen.
Scaling the Maggio
The felled trees—representing the King and Queen of the forest—are ritualistically united in the town square. Pruned and smoothed (except for the top of the Cima, which is decorated with paper streamers), the trees are vertically affixed to one-another in a symbolic wedding. The towering couple are then raised upright.
On the Tuesday after Pentecost, Holy Mass is celebrated and followed by a procession with elaborate candle-houses (cinte) and the statue San Giuliano. The revelers feast, dance and sing into the night. Some of the more daring youths scale the "newlyweds" and perform dangerous acrobatic feats. Until recently, near the end of the festivities, marksmen competed for prizes by shooting down the Cima's streamers and decorations. 
On the Feast of Corpus Domini, the tree is toppled (the felling of May) and cheering villagers rush to get a sprig for good luck. The trunk is chopped up and distributed for firewood. The annual ceremony will help ensure the Accetturesi a bountiful harvest and great fecundation. In celebration, I'm posting a prayer to San Giuliano. The accompanying photos come courtesy of

Prayer to San Giuliano 

Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that the examples of San Giuliano di Sora  may effectually move us to reform our lives; that while we celebrate his festival, we may also imitate his actions. Look upon our weakness, almighty God, and since the burden of our own deeds weighs heavily upon us, may the glorious intercession of San Giuliano protect us. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
A similar arboreal celebration called the Festa della Pita is observed in Alessandria del Carretto, a small town in the province of Cosenza in Calabria. On the last Sunday in April, a large fir tree is cut down and carried to the town's main square, piazza San Vincenzo. The tree is shorn, smoothed and rubbed down with animal fat. On May 3rd, with much fanfare (food, music, fireworks, etc.), it's raised upright. The origin of the festival is lost in antiquity, but today its performed in honor of the town's patron saint, Sant' Alessandro Papa Martire. Scenes of this wonderful celebration were captured in Michelangelo Frammartino's avant-garde film, Le quattro Volte (2010).