"Aprile con il fiore, maggio con il colore," Italians say. April with its flower, May with its color. One of my favorite months anywhere, May is a particularly special time in Italy. As an old saying goes, “Di maggio s’innamorano anche le civette.” (In May even the owls fall in love.)
The month’s name derives from the Roman goddess Maia (dalla dea romana Maia), mother of Mercury, but in Christian culture (nella cultura cristiana) maggio is dedicated to the Madonna, the mother of Jesus.
Devout Catholics often will fare il mese di maggio (do the month of May) by reciting il rosario (the rosary) every day. This consists of a series of fifty prayers called the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), divided into five groups of ten. Catholics keep track of the number of prayers with una corona del rosario (a rosary crown, more commonly called rosary beads in English).
May in Italy also is known as il mese delle rose e delle spose (the month of the roses and the brides). Le rose (roses) blossom during May, a popular time for le nozze (weddings).
May starts with il Primo Maggio (the first of May) and la festa del lavoro (the equivalent of America’s Labor Day) and includes a host of celebrations, including la festa della mamma (Mother’s Day).
Here are some other not-to-be-missed festivities:
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, one of the oldest music festivals in Italy, features opera, concerts and dance. The outdoor performances at night often end with dazzling fireworks displays. While in Florence, be sure to go the city’s famous Iris Garden, open to the general public only in May. You’ll gain an entirely new appreciation for the root of Florence’s Italian name: Firenze, derived from the Latin for “to flower or blossom.”
Giro d’Italia, the largest cycling event of the country, will be pedaling its way through Italy (and a bit of the Netherlands) before reaching the finish in Torino on May 29.
Corsa dei Ceri (Race of the Candles). The stony, silent town of Gubbio in Umbria explodes into frenzied excitement every May 15. Three teams of men run up and down its steep streets carrying Ceri, gigantic wooden constructions, each weighing about a thousand pounds and bearing a statue of a saint on top. The Ceri and the Corsa dei Matti (Race of the Crazy Ones, as it's nicknamed) may date back to the twelfth century, when Gubbio was miraculously spared from the forces of Frederick Barbarossa.
Calendimaggio, a series of medieval and Renaissance spettacoli (shows) with concerts, dances, archery, flag-waving, cross-bow displays and torch-lit processions, held in Assisi in early May.
La Barabbata, a procession in which men wear costumes and carry tools representing the traditional trades while white buffalo pull floats displaying the fruits of the trades, celebrated May 14 in Marta on the shores of Lake Bolsena.
La Festa di San Domenico, a procession on the first Thursday in May in Cocullo in the Abruzzi, highlighted by the carrying of a statue of the town's patron saint covered with live serpents.
Sposalizio dell’Albero, the wedding of the tree, on May 8 in Vetralla in northern Lazio, in which townspeople decorate a couple of oak trees with garlands and plant new trees in a ceremony that asserts the town's domination over the forest.
Infiorata di Noto, a huge festival with flower petal art displays and a parade in Noto, Sicily, during the third weekend of May.
Il Palio di Ferrara, a historical horse race dating from 1279, run the last Sunday in May, with events every weekend of the month, including a procession with over 1000 people in Renaissance costumes on the Saturday night before the race.
Italians never stop keeping an eye on the weather (il tempo) during this unpredictable month. On May 16, the feast of Sant’Ubaldo, they warn: “Per Sant’Ubaldo, guardati dal freddo e non dal caldo” (for St. Ubaldo, watch out for the cold and not the heat). On May 22, the feast of Santa Rita, they delight that “per Santa Rita, ogni rosa è fiorita (for St. Rita, every rose is blossoming). On May 26, they observe: “Se piove per San Filippo, il povero non ha bisogno del ricco” (If it rains for St. Philip, the poor won’t need the rich).
Yet another weather prediction: Quello che fa maggio, fa settembre (what May does, September does). And don’t forget a sweater: L’inverno a metà maggio riprende breve ingaggio (Winter briefly takes up the fight again in mid-May.)
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered