For the first time in 40 years, Vincenzo Labbate will not be playing the clarinet with his orchestra companions on Pentecost Sunday.
As he walks through the streets of Accettura, his hometown, he notes how unusually quiet it is this year. “There’s a melancholic atmosphere these days. Normally, you could breathe excitement in the air,” Labbate says.
Between late May and early June, the narrow alleys of Accettura—a small, agricultural village tucked away in the hills of the Basilicata region in southern Italy—turn into a bustling labyrinth of residents and tourists for Maggio di San Giuliano, the town’s sacred festival.
But this year there will be no celebration, a first since the end of World War II. Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, among the deadliest in the world, forced the cancellation of popular events across the country, including Accettura’s.
“It was a psychological shock for many of us because the Maggio is not just local folklore, it’s the expression of our identity,” says Alfonso Vespe, mayor of Accettura since 2015. But when Vespe first suspected COVID-19 had reached the remote community of roughly 1,800 residents, he stood by his decision to suspend the event, despite the easing of a months-long national lockdown on May 4.
“The whole town takes part in the festival, it’s one of those situations where it’s either all or no one at all, to not create divisions,” Vespe says. “There was no way to make social distancing work in such a scenario, unfortunately.”
Commonly referred to as “a wedding between trees,” the Maggio di San Giuliano (May of St. Julian) is an arboreal ritual, with pagan roots, that symbolizes Earth’s fertility. According to experts, the first historical evidence of the custom dates back to the Lombards, a Germanic population that settled in the area around the 7th century.
During the ritual, a male maggio (oak) and a female cima (holly) are grafted with the help of two volunteer groups of residents—maggiaioli (men who gather the maggio) and the cimaioli (men who gather the cima). Toward the end of the 18th century, a religious aspect was introduced to the tradition through the worship of San Giuliano, the local patron saint, whose statue is carried around town during the ceremony.
“Traditions are not a monolith; they adapt to cultural change,” explains Marina Berardi, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Basilicata. “After Accettura became a devoted Christian environment, it was natural to combine the two major aspects of local identity—agriculture and Catholic faith—into one, rich celebration.”
The feast itself lasts three days, starting on Pentecost Sunday until the following Tuesday. But the preparation ahead of the celebration begins much earlier.
On the first Sunday after Easter, a select group of men heads toward a nearby forest to choose the tallest and healthiest oak tree to become the maggio or groom. The following Sunday, the cima, or bride, is chosen from a different forest.
“This initial task is a huge honor and responsibility,” says 73-year-old Franchino Volpe, a maggiaiolo since 1972. “When older generations die, they are replaced by those with the longest-standing experience in town. It’s a tradition passed on orally and visually, from the elderly to the youth.”
Trees are chosen as early as January and require weeks of negotiation. “We need to make sure we choose the best possible groom for the tree bride. It is no joke when we say it takes as much care as a human wedding,” says Volpe.
On Ascension Thursday, the chosen maggio is cut down, and eight days later, it will be dragged by 56 pairs of oxen to a rest area 2.5 miles from Accettura. The next day, it’ll begin its descent towards town.
Unlike its male counterpart, the female cima is cut down and immediately carried to Accettura in the early morning of the first day by the cimaioli. They make a few stops to rest along the way; each time they are welcomed by tables buckling with food prepared by fellow accetturesi.
“During this occasion, no old grudges are allowed to interfere. It is like the sacred moment of truce during the Olympic Games in ancient Greece,” says Labbate who, aside from playing in the orchestra, supervises the overall festival organization. “We put every divide aside and eat from each other’s plates, like a whole big family. It’s a way to preserve and strengthen bonds within our community.”
The betrothed trees are prepared for the wedding on Whit Monday, their deadwood cut and their trunks garnished. Tuesday is the busiest day of all. Moments after sunrise, the women of Accettura parade across town with the cente (big, votive candles) above their heads.
This scene sets the stage for the religious procession, where the statue of San Giuliano is carried around Accettura’s main streets, accompanied by thousands of worshippers, until it reaches the main square, filled with live music.
“When I look at the huge crowd, and among the thousands of tourists that outnumber the locals, I recognize the faces of many young accetturesi, including the children of those of us who emigrated abroad. I feel hopeful,” says Father Giuseppe Filardi, the town’s priest and head of procession since 1995, about the festival from previous years.
“It makes me realize that, although the Italian Church may have a hard time connecting with younger audiences lately, this celebration sticks with them. Because it’s part of our roots, it’s our lifeblood,” Filardi continues. “I’m confident that, whatever happens, this tradition will keep us connected through time and space.”
Under the vigilant gaze of San Giuliano, the maggio rises above the main square on Tuesday evening. Then the cima is mounted to its top, making a single, 90-foot-long trunk. As the sun begins to set, a small group of brave locals will attempt to climb the tree to find a hidden treasure, wrapping up the event.
Berardi says because Maggio di San Giuliano plays a huge role in shaping the sense of community in Accettura, this year’s cancellation could be compared to a form of collective trauma or mourning.
To lift the spirits, the mayor proposed gifting each of the residents with a small piece of the maggio, pre-selected before lockdown, as a form of connection in times of social distancing. Father Giuseppe will likely donate many of the 5,000 prayer brochures he had already printed to encourage worshipping San Giuliano at home this year.
“I understand these are just symbolic gestures that cannot be compared with the real Maggio,” Vespe admits. “But we will return stronger than ever next year, God willing.”
Stefani D’Ignoti is an Italian-based writer. Follow her travels on Twitter.