In the 1980s Magnum photographer John Vink visited the southern Italian town of Accettura to shoot its traditional tree festival. He told a friend of mine it was one of the craziest things he had photographed, and that he thought not much would have changed since. Not being able to find a lot of information about it, I decided to visit the town during a trip to Italy.

Surrounded by forests, Accettura feels almost untouched by time—especially during Maggio Di Accettura, a four-day Pagan fertility ritual that has survived over the centuries. During the celebration, the maggio, a tall old oak, and the cima, a holly tree, are cut from the surrounding forests to be transported back into town. The maggio is pulled by 100 oxen that are bred for the occasion, while the cima is carried on shoulder by the town’s young men for over 20 kilometers.

The Maggio is pulled into town by oxen over two-days, and the cima is later carried by shoulder by the young men of the town.

A view of Accettura from the top of the town.

The Maggio di Accettura is a unique combination of paganism and religion, belief and superstition, excessive partying, hard work, and traditional craftsmanship. Everything, from the cutting and transportation of the trees to creating the mechanism to lift them, is done by hand. The tall maggio symbolizes the groom, the younger and smaller cima tree, the bride.

Trees have been the subject of worship in all parts of the world, from the Roman Empire’s sacred fig trees to Ancient Egypt’s sycamores and Asia’s banyans. Maggio di Accettura is one of the remnants of these arboreal cults.

Once they have been brought into town, the trees meet and are joined in a symbolic wedding ceremony under the watchful gaze of San Giuliano, the patron of Accettura. The top of the cima is inserted into the maggio before being raised above Accettura, overlooking the town. It’s not just the union of the trees; it’s the union of the town.

The local men spend the day working on making the mechanism used to raise the “Maggio”.

A band practices on the first day of the festival.

Raising the maggio.

The top of the cima is inserted into the maggio before being raised above Accettura, overlooking the town.

In the final procession, where they parade and dance around the town in traditional centa head-dresses, made from candles and flowers.

The Maggio and Cema trees are joined together and are raised over the main square of the town. Traditionally men from the town would climb the elevated tree, but due to severe rain nobody was able to climb.

The workers pay respects to a statue of Saint Julian on the last day of the festival.