Basque ethnography at a glance

May Day or the first of May was known as ‘Maialen’ in towns such as Arrigorriaga, Ugao, Arrankudiaga, Orozko and Laudio. It was also called ‘maiazlen’ elsewhere, and both terms come from ‘maiatz lehen”.

It was a special day, but we are not sure about the reason why. Furthermore, it would be hard to research it as the custom is all but forgotten. However, thanks to the documented popular beliefs, we know that it was a very special day and important for those who wanted to look after their health by taking preventive measures. In short, a way to avoid headaches and scabies was to drink milk on that day or, depending on the towns, eat roasted bacon.

The reason why? We do not know. This is our theory. Spring was the time of the greatest scarcity, as the food stored for winter was either finished or about to be, and, even though days were longer, nature still had not produced anything to alleviate hunger. Everything was starting to emerge, but there was nothing at all for people’s stomachs. Proof of this was the saying ‘Kukua etorri, gosea etorri…’, ‘when you hear the cuckoo, hunger is on the way’.

However, farm animals began to give milk with the start of the breeding season, and that became the most accessible, satisfying and nearly only way to stave off hunger.

I am sure that an unscrupulous way of alleviating hunger lay behind that custom and it had become a pretext to enjoy a gulp of that so sought-after milk.

Let us look in more detail at the references to those customs that have now fallen into oblivion.  Most come from the linguist R. Mª Azkue (1864-1951).

One from the Mundaka area is very enlightening:

‘Whoever drinks milk on May Day will not have a headache the rest of the year. “May Day, Milk Day” as the saying goes’ referring to the Basque expression ‘Maialen eguna, esne-eguna’.

The same author also refers to the custom likewise being very well-established in the town of Llodio, but in that case to prevent scabies. And it went even further: if there was no milk, it had to be obtained by any means to carry out the ritual:

 ‘If there is no milk at home on May Day, it has to be brought in and everybody must drink it so that nobody catches scabies’. This reference to Llodio coincides with the information gathered in Arratia and Dima. So, the custom must have been quite widespread.

As has already been stated, milk was readily available in early May: ‘In May, even ants usually have milk,’ as recorded in Arrankudiaga. It was likewise the best quality: ‘May’s milk is the best to make cheese for the whole year’, was pointed out in Llodio.

However, not only milk had those extraordinary powers on May Day, but there were also references to roasted pork belly in the notes of the linguist from Lekeitio.

For example, with respect to growth in childhood, he was told in Gorozika that ‘If they eat roasted bacon on May Day, the boy, and also the girl, will be pale and blonde and bonny’.

We now know why and how to celebrate May Day: drinking a sip of milk before going to the demonstrations to demand our labour rights. We might not have money in our wallet with today’s pitiful wages, but at least we will not have a headache for the rest of the year. Not to be sneered at…


Felix Mugurutza

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