"April showers bring May flowers", and in Greece the flowers arrive right on time and in glorious abundance. Carpets of daisies and margaritas, swathes of blue stock, wild grasses, deep red poppies, giant buttercups . . . double helpings of everything."
HI HOW RU?
U NEED 2 RELAX
1ST STOP THIS TXT LARK
& DO WHAT?
Switch off that infernal mobile and come with me out of the city for a spring reawakening.
The hills above Athens, for a stroll among the cypress trees around the monastery of Kaisariani. Breathe in the fresh spring air and enjoy the warmth of the sun on your face, as you look beyond the smog of Athens to the vast Aegean Sea.
I'm feeling better already; now what exactly are we looking for this week?
Let me explain. In Greece, on the first of May, swarms of busy city folk like ourselves take the day off and head to the countryside to reacquaint themselves with good old mother nature. They picnic, frolic and pick flowers to make a traditional spring wreath called a mai.
Are there enough flowers to go round?
"April showers bring May flowers", and in Greece the flowers arrive right on time and in glorious abundance. Carpets of daisies and margaritas, swathes of blue stock, wild grasses, deep red poppies, giant buttercups . . . double helpings of everything.
But isn't it against the rules to pick wild flowers?
They are regarded as pretty weeds; as long as you aren't picking rare orchids or pinching from somebody's garden, no one seems to mind.
Is there a religious significance to the wreaths?
Not really. May Day, or Protomagia as it is known in Greece, is one of the few pagan festivals that the church hasn't appropriated. It is an age-old celebration of fertility, fecundity and the miraculous cycles of nature.
Don't go all hippy-dippy on me.
Well, if you want religion the ancient Greek gods did have an explanation for the glorious spring reawakening.
Go on . . .
In the soap opera of the gods this is the plot: Pluto (Hades) runs off with gorgeous pouting Persephone, daughter of the mother earth goddess, Demeter. He takes her back to his place, the Underworld, leaving the earth robbed of Persephone's considerable beauty, not to mention boundless fertility. Demeter is distraught and pleads with her lover, Zeus, to sort it out. It is a bit tricky for the top God because Pluto, God of the Dead, is his brother and "family is family", but eventually a compromise is struck. The beautiful Persephone is allowed to return home to earth but only for two-thirds of the year. And it is her homecoming that mortals celebrate with gusto - dancing, singing and making wreaths of flowers to crown their queen of spring.
I'm feeling a bit of spring sap myself; is a mai easy to make?
It is very simple once you've done it a few times. The key is finding a good bit of bendy willow (legoria) to wrap the wild flowers around. Make a circle with the wood and secure it using wild grasses as twine.
Should I use any special types of flowers?
Long-stemmed plants are easiest to braid into the crown but spontaneity is the order of the day, so use any blooms that take your fancy as long as you don't forget the wild garlic.
To ward off vampires?
Nothing as dramatic as that, just a small insurance policy against the evil eye.
Marvellous. What should I do with it now?
Take it home and hang it on your doorway to invite in the best of the season. The Greeks call this "catching the May" as the strength of spring comes into the house and harsh winter is shown the back door.
Hurrah . . . how long does it last?
Under the strong Greek sun, the wreath only stays fresh for a day or so.
So when should I take it down?
It's up to you. Some house-proud fusspots remove them at the first sign of wilting, others leave them up all year and replace the dried circle of straw and daisies with a fresh crown of green the following spring. The more dramatically minded wait until midsummer and ritually set fire to their wreaths of mai during the feast of St John on June 24.
What if I can't make it to the flower fields on May 1?
There are celebrations the night before in the Athens suburbs of Ano Patissia and Nea Filadelphia. Here the parks are much more like wild meadows or little parcels of countryside that have sneaked into town. There is a carnival atmosphere with plenty of wine-quaffing and lamb-scoffing, while the makeshift stalls sell spring flowers and petals litter the paths.
And on the day itself?
You could get up early and try the flower market on Antheon. It is a wholesale place with pick-up trucks spilling over with flowers and booths doing swift business in church tributes. Here you will get an idea of the volume of blooms used for the shopmade mai.
You can buy a wreath of mai?
Lots of Athenians miss out on the country stroll and get ready-made wreaths from their florists and flower stalls. There is a whole range on offer, from rough and ready circles of blooms plonked on polystyrene rings to elaborate arrangements of cultivated flowers and exotic imports. You can even buy plastic wreaths.
Are the ready-mades any good?
The better florists produce decent displays and for 30 euros (about £20) you can buy one that wouldn't let the neighbourhood down.
You don't sound too keen?
Well, making a mai is a great excuse to get out in the fields with your family. You cannot compare a quick city purchase with wandering back from the Athenian hills with a sun-kissed face and a crown of hand-picked wild flowers on your arm. I know which celebration gorgeous pouting Persephone would approve of.