“Planting May” in Umbria
On the vigil of May 1st, a small Umbrian hilltown not far from Gubbio, San Pellegrino, celebrates a curious May ritual grounded in Christian tradition but celebrated with a decidedly pagan flair: la Festa di San Pellegrino. Culminating moment of the festival is the “piantarmaggio” (“the planting of May”).
A few years ago, a friend from San Pellegrino had told us about his village’s pagan/Christian celebration and we knew it was not to be missed. As advised, on April 30th we arrived at San Pellegrino at 10:30 pm – 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”, ie, 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, vassals were sent 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, on the vigil of May 1st, the townspeople haul a massive poplar trunk up to the main piazza in a dead run and “plant” it, in memory of the San Pellegrino, beloved saint whose image surmounts many a medieval arch in the town, flanks many a doorway.
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 (NB. light, 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: all the branches of the tree were chopped off, the bark was slivered off (women and children scrambling for lucky pieces of bark and for branches). A longtitudinal wedge was cut 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 til nearly 2:30 a.m. 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 2:30 a.m , 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. Maypole.
The poplar tree stays in the central piazza of San Pellegrino throughout May as all come to gaze up in wonder and touch it, stroke it, seeking the blessing of San Pellegrino… and probably oblivious to any other significance!
(Note: in the rural areas, a young man will often ask another “Hai piantato maggio ancora?” (“Have you planted May yet?”) with a wink and a chuckle. They both know what it means!)
Read about the May 15th Corsa dei Ceri in Gubbio
Click here to read about Assisi’s Calendimaggio, another May festival with ancient traditions
Click here for more on Italian passione
Click here to read about singing in May in Umbria