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Protomagia: Labor Day in Greece

May Day (otherwise known as Labor Day, or Labor Day weekend in some places) has its roots in antiquity.

Back then, the Greeks, as well as many other people of Europe, celebrated the final victory of spring against winter, something that would bring fertility and life to nature and, by extension, to humans.

The word “May” itself is believed to have originated from the Roman goddess Maia, who took her name from Maia, one of the Pleiades. The word maia back then meant wet nurse and mother. The celebrations of antiquity were, of course, altered over time, but they survive today as simple folk traditions.

Taking this historical context and examining it in light of more recent events and current traditions, you’ll uncover so much about Greece’s culture. Let GreekPod101.com show you everything you need to know about May 1 Day in Greece!

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1. What is Labor Day?

May 1, otherwise known as Protomayá (“May Day”), is a holiday dedicated to spring and the flowers. It’s also called International Workers’ Day in memory of the uprising of the workers of Chicago on May 1886, who were demanding an eight-hour working schedule and better working conditions.

For the labor unions, this is a day to strike, while for the rest it’s simply a public holiday. Thus, Labor Day’s meaning varies based on who you ask and who’s celebrating. Regardless, May Day in Greece is a day of historical significance and modern-day fun.

2. When is Labor Day?

The First of May

Each year, May 1st Day is celebrated on—May 1st! The perfect time of year to collect Greek flowers and observe the following Greek customs for May Day.

3. How is Labor Day Celebrated?

People Leaping Through Fire

How is May 1 celebrated in Greece? Read the Greek text below (and find the English translation directly below it) to learn about Greek customs during Protomagia.

Στην Ελλάδα το πιο γνωστό έθιμο της Πρωτομαγιάς είναι το πρωτομαγιάτικο στεφάνι. Πολλοί εκμεταλλεύονται την αργία και πηγαίνουν εκδρομές στην ύπαιθρο για να μαζέψουν αγριολούλουδα και πρασινάδες, που θα πλέξουν σε στεφάνι και θα κρεμάσουν στις πόρτες τους απ’ έξω. Το έθιμο αυτό φέρνει τους ανθρώπους πιο κοντά στη φύση, ακόμα και όσους ζουν στις πόλεις. Το στεφάνι ξεραίνεται και παραμένει στις πόρτες ως τη γιορτή του Αϊ-Γιαννιού, όπου στην επαρχία το καίνε στις φωτιές που ανάβουν.

Σε πολλές περιοχές ο Μάης ενσαρκώνεται στο «Μαγιόπουλο». Στο έθιμο αυτό ένα παιδί στολισμένο με λουλούδια τριγυρνάει στους δρόμους του χωριού μαζί με συνοδεία, και όλοι χορεύουν και τραγουδάνε τραγούδια για τον Μάη. Στη Ναύπακτο το Μαγιόπουλο συνοδεύεται από γέρους φουστανελάδες που κρατούν κουδούνια στολισμένα με ανθισμένη ιτιά. Το έθιμο αυτό, με ελάχιστες παραλλαγές, λέγεται «πιπεριά» στη βόρεια Εύβοια. Από τα χαράματα οι νέες του χωριού σκεπάζουν το σώμα μιας λυγερόκορμης κοπέλας με λουλούδια και φτέρες. Της κρεμάνε και ένα κουδούνι και αυτή είναι… η «πιπεριά».

Σε μερικά μέρη όλοι καταβρέχουν την «πιπεριά» και τραγουδάνε παρακαλώντας για βροχή, ενώ εκείνη υποκλίνεται σε όσους τη ραντίζουν. Λένε πως πολλές φορές μετά το γύρισμα της «πιπεριάς» στους δρόμους του χωριού, βρέχει!

In Greece, the most well-known tradition of May Day is the May Day wreath. Many people take advantage of this holiday and go on field trips in the countryside to collect wild flowers and greenery, which they will then weave into a wreath that they hang outside their doors. This tradition brings people closer to nature, even those who live in the cities. The wreath dries up and remains on the doors until the celebration of St. John, where in the province it is burned in the fires that people ignite.

In many regions, May is personified with the May child. In this tradition, a child decorated with flowers wanders around the streets of the village with some escorts, and everyone dances and sings songs about May. In Nafpaktos, the May child is accompanied by elderly men who wear fustanela skirts and hold bells decorated with willow tree blossoms. This tradition, with a few variations, is called piperiá (“pepper tree”) in north Euboea. From the crack of dawn, the young girls of the village cover the body of a tall and beautiful young girl with flowers and ferns. They also hang a bell on her, making her piperiá.

In some places, everyone hoses down piperiá and sings pleas for rain, while she bows to those who sprinkle her. It’s said that very often after the stroll of piperiá on the streets of the village, it rains!

4. Additional Information

Do you know when the first May Day protest in Greece was?

It was in 1892 from the Central Socialist Association of Kallergis. Then another one followed the year after, with over 2,000 workers demanding an eight-hour working schedule, Sunday as a day off, and public health insurance for the victims of labor accidents. Nowadays on Protomagia, Greece holds protests, with the largest ones being in the center of Athens.

5. Must-know Vocab

Single White Flower

Here’s some vocabulary you should know for May 1st Day in Greece!

  • Εργάτης (ergátis) — “worker”
  • Άνοιξη (ánixi) — “spring”
  • Μάιος (Máios) — “May”
  • Λουλούδι (lulúdi) — “flower”
  • Αργία (aryía) — “holiday”
  • εργατική Πρωτομαγιά (ergatikí Protomayá) — “Labor Day”
  • Εργαζόμενος (ergazómenos) — “employee”
  • εργατική επανάσταση (ergatikí epanástasi) — “workers’ revolution”
  • Επανάσταση (epanástasi) — “revolution”
  • πρωτομαγιάτικο στεφάνι (protomayiátiko stefáni) — “May 1st Day wreath”
  • Πρωτομαγιά (Protomayá) — “May 1st Day”
  • φτιάχνω στεφάνι (ftiáhno stefáni) — “make wreath”
  • Μαγιόξυλο (mayóxilo) — “cypress branch used on May 1st Day”
  • εργατικό σωματείο (ergatikó somatío) — “labor union”
  • το πήδημα της φωτιάς (to pídima tis fotiás) — “leaping through fire”
  • Προλεταριάτο (proletariáto) — “proletariat”
  • αμίλητο νερό (amílito neró) — “silent water”
  • εργατική τάξη (ergatikí táxi) — “working class”
  • Απεργία (aperyía) — “strike”

To hear the pronunciation of each word, check out our May 1st Day vocabulary list, where you’ll find each word accompanied by an audio file of its pronunciation.

Conclusion

As you can see, May 1 is a day of great celebration across Greece, both rooted in history and blossoming in light of the modern world. What do you think about Greece’s celebration of May 1? Does your country have similar (or very different) celebrations? Let us know in the comments!

To learn more about the culture of Greece and the Greek language, visit us at GreekPod101.com. We offer many tools to aid you in your language-learning journey, such insightful blog posts, an online community forum, and free vocabulary lists to expand your inner dictionary! You can also take advantage of our MyTeacher program to learn Greek with your own personal teacher.

Know that your studying and practice will pay off, and you’ll soon be speaking Greek—and talking about its culture—like a native! Best wishes in your language-learning journey!

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