Celebrating La Festa dei Lavori: May Day in Italy and Ancient Rome

Like many other countries, Italy marks “May Day” on 1 May with a public holiday.

The holiday dates back to 1889, when the Socialist and Communist parties declared 1 May a holiday to celebrate hard-won workers’ rights.

During the period of rule by the National Fascist Party in Italy (1922 to 1943), May Day – or Labour Day – was celebrated on 21 April, the same day which is thought of as the date when Rome was founded.

During the period of rule by the National Fascist Party in Italy (1922 to 1943), May Day – or Labour Day – was celebrated on 21 April, the same day which is thought of as the date when Rome was founded.

Capitoline Hill, Romulus and Remus suckling from the she wolf – it is said Rome was founded by King Romulus after he killed his twin brother

Anyone who has studied Roman history knows that Italy’s forbears loved a public holiday and a parade or two – and in modern times, Italy is no different. May Day – or primo maggio – is often marked with parades or workers’ marches.

Ancient Roman rulers also aligned their public celebrations with mythological dates, as the Fascists did, in an attempt to link their own legacies with the origins of Rome and the ancient gods. They believed tracing their heritage back to the beginnings of Rome and the ancient gods strengthened their own power.

The Fascists under Benito Mussolini also adopted the idea of their political party being linked to Ancient Rome, as an essential part of their own mythology.

Celebrating Floralia with nude dancing (Image Wikipedia CCL)

The start of May is linked to the festival of Floralia (27 April – 3 May) in Ancient Rome, when there were celebrations to the goddess Flora to signal the start of spring and fertility, as well as the growth of flowers and plants. The poet Ovid mentions that goats and hares were released during the festival to mark spring.

As early as 2 AD, Emperor Commodus (now famous for putting to death the fictional Maximus Decimus Meridius in the film Gladiator) was found to have accounts relating to a festival of Maiouma, which extended for the entire month of May.

Etching of Emperor Commodus, the “festa” emperor

Today, La Festa dei Lavori is for socialising, often with family – previous generations might have dined together or taken part in local events. Today families might meet up at home or in parks or open spaces.

In the more industrial areas of Italy, such as in the north of the country, there might still be a workers’ parade or a march to remember the fight for workers’ rights in the 19th century.

May Day parade, Vienna, 2013 (Image SPO Presse und Kommunikation, Wikipedia CCL)Vienna grew from a Roman camp called Vindabona into a major city by the 11th century and it looks as though it still loves a Roman-style parade today

In some countries, May Day also embraces their own particular culture or history – in the UK, Morris Dancers perform in the streets and at local fairs and traditionally people danced round the maypole, just as there was dancing during the Festival of Floralia in Ancient Rome.

Traditional Morris dancers in London on May Day (Image coptright A. Meredith)

In the Catholic religion May is the month of Mary, mother of Jesus – so 1 May is often a time to commemorate Mary with special hymns dedicated to her in church services.

Mary, mother of Jesus, depicted in Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Basilica of St Peter, Rome (Image Pixabay)

And, of course, another well-known tradition on May Day is the crowning of the May Queen – she is a symbol of purity and walks or is carried at the head of the May Day parade to start the May Day celebrations. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, the May Queen wears a white robe.

The May Queen crowning also dates back to 19th century Britain, but it is easy to see how customs from Ancient Rome have been handed down and could have influenced festivals and customs across the Roman Empire.

Dancing in the street outside the Colosseum in October- why wait for May?

Images: A. Meredith except where stated

Featured image: Pixabay

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