1st May in Portugal: A day of workers’ rights and springtime rites, Festivals

1st May in Portugal: a day of workers’ rights and springtime rites

As in many countries around the world Portugal celebrates Dia do Trabalhador (Worker’s Day) on 1st May. It is a public holiday that is marked by parades and rallies by left-wing political parties and trade unions. These demonstrations for workers’ rights began in the late-nineteenth century, when 1st of May was named as International Workers’ Day, and continued into the early-twentieth century. It was renamed Festa do Trabalho Nacional (National Celebration of Work) during the oppressive right-wing dictatorship of Salazar and, later, Caetano, when any form of demonstration was violently quashed, and any celebrations on this day were organized and controlled by the State. Worker’s Day was reinstated in May 1974, a week after the Carnation Revolution that had overthrown the dictatorship, and over half a million people gathered in Lisbon to welcome the return of Mário Soares, the secretary-general of the Socialist Party, and Álvaro Cunhal, the secretary-general of the Communist Party, who had both been in exile, and to celebrate the freedoms of democracy denied during the dictatorship, such as freedom of speech and the freedom to gather in public. Nowadays, two of the largest rallies, organized by one of the main unions, the Confederaçāo Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses-Intersindical Nacional (CGTP-IN) (General Confederation of Portuguese Workers-National Inter-union), are held in Lisbon and Porto. In Lisbon they gather in the Praça Martim Moniz and march to Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques and in Porto the rally is held in the Avenida dos Aliados.

Long before it was named ‘Worker’s Day’, 1st May has had significance as a springtime festival which goes back to Pagan times and throughout the country, but particularly in the Douro, Beira-Alta and Minho regions in the north, is symbolized by the giesta bush (Cytisus striatus or hairy-fruited broom) with its yellow flowers known as Maias which are abundant in late April and early May.

Sprigs or garlands of yellow broom or other flowers are placed in door and window frames, on balconies and even on cars, agricultural machinery and animal sheds before midnight on the night of 30th April to bring prosperity, health, fertility and to ward off the evil spirit known variously, depending on the region, as Maio (May), Carrapato (Tick), Burro (Donkey), Bruxa (Witch) or Mau olhado (Evil eye). During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church banned pagan celebrations, including this tradition of placing flowers on the doors and windows, however, people got around this ban by giving it religious significance and the yellow broom became associated with the Bible story of the flight of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus into Egypt. It was said that in one village where the Holy Family was hiding an informer agreed to put some yellow broom on the house that was sheltering them so that Herod’s soldiers could find them, but when the soldiers arrived the next morning all the houses in the village were displaying yellow broom and the soldiers were unable to find them. In the Trás-os-Montes and Beiras regions chestnuts were seen as a way of keeping the evil spirit at bay, following a proverb: ‘Quem nāo come castanhas no 1˚ de Maio, monta-o o burro’ (‘Whoever doesn’t eat chestnuts on 1st May, will be ridden by the “donkey”.’).

 In the past it was common to venerate a May Queen on 1st May, which, depending on the region, was a variation on the theme of a young girl dressed in white wearing a crown of flowers on her head (symbolizing purity and personifying spring). She may have been seated on a throne around which other children danced and sang May songs, she may have walked around the village greeting the local inhabitants or, as in the Trás-os-Montes, rather than being a May Queen, may have been a Maio-Moço (May-Lad), who was a young boy dressed from head to foot in yellow broom whom the girls of the village danced around in a ritual meant to scare away the evil spirits. In Beja (in the Alentejo) a May Queen ritual has been revived in which very young girls dressed in white and with flower garlands on their head are seated on thrones, with small baskets in front of them, who are venerated by song and dance. The baskets relate to a tradition of asking for ‘Uma moedinha (or um tostāozinho) para a Maia que nāo tem saia’ (‘A penny for the Maia who does not have a skirt’). The name ‘Maia’ is thought to originate from Maia, the Roman goddess of spring and growth but the entreaty dates back to the mid-twentieth century when people did not have much money and had to beg for money to buy the basic necessities.

In the Algarve region it is common to see a display of life-size figures filled with straw, rags and newspaper, dressed in traditional clothes, doing everyday activities and accompanied by flowers and satirical verses. It is believed that this is based on an ancient Pagan tradition where people danced around a straw doll, known as a Maia, on 1st May, most probably as a fertility dance. The life-size figures appear at dawn on 1st May and can be seen outside houses or in the street in various places in the Algarve including Lagos and along the side of the main EN125 road between Marim and Alfandanga, near Olhāo. It is clear that a lot of thought and effort has gone into making these figures and there is now a competitive element as a prize is awarded to the best ones.

As this is a public holiday, banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres, shops and restaurants in tourist areas should be open as usual.

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