“Find out where the Portuguese broom tradition comes from
May 1st is called Portuguese broom Day. There is a tradition all over the country, mainly in rural areas, to decorate the windows with yellow broom on the night of April 30th to May 1st. It is a very old tradition, linked to Spring and agricultural rituals.
The tradition sends that on the night of April 30 to May 1, people decorate doors, windows and other places with yellow flowers and broom and, in some places, also with decorated straw dolls. Our ancestors already did this to mark the end of Winter and to ask for protection and fertility for the land.
The houses were decorated at night, so that they were all full of flowers when the day came. In this way “the evil spirits” stayed away. There are lands where flowers are placed on the door bolt.
This tradition is called “As Maias (The Porguses broom)”, “Os Maios (The Mays)” or “The flower of May” and is different depending on the regions of the country. It is also said to “put the Portuguese broom at the door”.
Brooms are used because they are very abundant flowers at this time of year and because they are yellow, they represent light, life.
There are several explanations for the origin of this very ancient tradition:
- Maia was a rye straw doll, around which people danced on the night of April 30 to May 1. It could also be a girl dressed in white with wreaths of flowers, who was sitting on a throne full of flowers and around which people sang and danced.
- This party was pagan and was banned several times in Portugal, even by royal charter.
Maia was the mother goddess of Mercury, who was the messenger of the gods.
- Maia was the Roman goddess of fertility. The name “Maia” means “little mother” and was traditionally given to a grandmother, wet nurse or midwife.
- This tradition is associated with a very important festival for the Romans, which was Floralia, held in the first 3 days of May, in honor of the goddess Flora and Primavera.
- It was a party that celebrated fertility and asked the Earth to bear fruit in this new agricultural year.
- Many of the legends and traditions that have been adopted by the Catholic Church have pagan roots. The Catholic Church adopted a large part of pagan rituals so that people would not revolt because they lost the traditions they had.
- In Alto Minho, this tradition is associated with Jesus’ flight to Egypt:
- Legend has it that King Herod discovered that the Holy Family was spending the night in a small village on his flight to Egypt.
- Then he ordered that when someone found out in which house the Child Jesus was, hang a bunch of broom on the door, so that the soldiers would know where to go.
- Miraculously, when the soldiers arrived in the city, they found all the doors adorned with branches of flowering broom.
- So the soldiers were unable to find the Baby Jesus.
- In other lands, it is said that Maria, on her way to Egypt, was putting broom on the way to know how to make the way back
The Portuguese broom tradition is also associated with other ancient pagan customs, which during this period celebrated fertility and abundance in Nature.
- In the Celtic tradition, the first night of May was to celebrate the fertility of the Earth, in which people asked Nature to give them good fruit that year. It was called Beltane night, dedicated to the god Bel, who protected life. Beltane meant “the fire of Bel” and rituals of purification by fire were performed.
- The cattle were released and people had the tradition of jumping a fire to be lucky in love.
- In Portugal, this tradition is practiced on the night of Saint John, when bonfires are lit and, according to popular tradition, one must jump the bonfire to be lucky in love.
- In May there are countless fertility celebrations all over Europe.
- In this period Nature has already begun to emerge, the first flowers are already seen, the trees are already covered with green.
- These rituals celebrate life, light, fire and also serve to ward off fear of the unknown, disease, darkness.
- One of the best known traditions is the May Mast, which has been used since the 14th century in Central Europe.
- A mast is erected with colored ribbons tied at the top. The mast symbolizes the World Tree and the ribbons make the connection between heaven and Earth.
- On the first day of May, men and women held each other on their tape and danced around this mast, with choreographies that were intertwining the tapes. When the ribbons were all wrapped around the mast, they were tied to the base with a red ribbon. It was a celebration of life and youth, and it is still practiced in some places in Europe.
- There was also an European custom in which boys placed wreaths on the doors of the girls’ houses with whom they were in love.
How are the Portuguese broom celebrated?
This tradition is celebrated in different ways from North to South of the country. Sometimes it is even celebrated differently in two locations that are just a few kilometers away.
- In Minho, it is celebrated in the most classic way, with flowering broom at the door. People also believe that the smell of the broom helps to ward off the evil eye.
- In Trás-os-Montes and Beira Alta this tradition is also linked to dried chestnuts, which people keep to eat on this day.
There is a proverb that says “Whoever does not eat chestnuts on the 1st of May, the donkey rides”. According to popular tradition, May is the month of donkeys, and there was a belief that if a person did not eat chestnuts and found a donkey, it would bite him!
The tradition of eating dried chestnuts in May has to do with a very old tradition, according to which on the 1st of May the head of the family went to the fountain and hide the spirits with black beans, protecting his family. Hence the tradition of eating dried chestnuts on this date.
- In Trás-os-Montes there is also the Maio-Moço (May-Boy) ritual: young girls decorate a boy they call Maio-Moço, who take them for a walk on the street, while dancing and singing around him.
- In Vila Nova de Anços, Beira Litoral, the 1st of May is used to declare love to someone. The boys prepare a doll (with real or paper flowers), and leave it at the door of the house of the girl they like.
- In Monsanto, Beira Baixa there is the so-called Marafona, a doll made of two sticks arranged in a cross, whose party is celebrated on the Sunday following the 3rd of May. The Feast of the Divine Holy Cross, as it is locally known, is a variant of the Portuguese broom celebration.
- In Estremadura, Maia is a girl adorned with flowers who walks the streets of the villages with her companions.
- In Alentejo, especially in Beja, the Mayans are girls dressed in white, who wear a wreath of flowers on their heads, who sit on a chair at the door of their house, on the corner of a street or in the plaza. The other girls ask those who pass “a little penny to the Maya”. In Portalegre it is part of the tradition of the day of the city, celebrated on May 23, to have a parade “das Maias”, girls dressed in white and adorned with crowns of yellow flowers, who roam the streets of the city singing.
- In Algarve it is customary to place rye straw dolls dressed in rags and adorned on their doorsteps. In Lagos, in particular, the most beautiful Maia in the city is chosen every year. People expose dolls in rags, dressed in typical costumes and decorated with flowers, at their doorstep, windows, balconies and streets.”