The Little-Known Ritual Behind These Beautiful Flower Crowns

We're all used to seeing flower crowns sprouting up at festivals and weddings.

But for women and girls in one Spanish village, the accessory carries significant meaning — and is a centerpiece of a beautiful cultural tradition that dates back hundreds of years.

Each year, inhabitants of Colmenar Viejo, Spain, fill the streets to usher in the spring with their long-running Las Mayas celebration.

Central to the festivities are the Maya girls, young women from the village who are adorned with flower crowns and staged at altars near the center of town. There, the girls must sit for hours, keeping a solemn vigil as other villagers visit to pay respects to their representation of the coming of springtime, renewal, and fertility.

The feast, which has pagan roots, is typically celebrated during the first week of May.

Spanish photographer Daniel Ochoa de Olza captured the ritual for The Associated Press — and his stunning images won him recognition from the World Press Photo Awards.

"There is an enormous cultural richness in the Iberian Peninsula, and it's paradoxical that it goes unnoticed when it is so close to us," Ochoa said to El País.

Ahead, photos and stories that shed light on the Las Mayas tradition.
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
Las Mayas dates back to medieval times and is carried on by the village’s families. “There are no written rules — everything has been passed down orally from generation to generation,” according to National Geographic.
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
The four to five girls chosen as La Mayas must pose for several hours at the altars before participating in church services and other aspects of the annual festival. “They sit still for hours since they are solemn representations of the Roman goddess fused with the Virgin Mary,” Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, told Refinery29. “It would be undignified for them to be moving about among the revelers.”
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
The festival is rooted in "Roman celebrations of the arrival of spring, symbolized by pubescent female fertility," Chesnut told Refinery29.
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
"Since the Middle Ages, there has been a growing Catholic influence in which the girls are dressed and posed in a style similar to the Virgin Mary," Chesnut said. "Maya is thought to derive from the Roman goddess, Maia, a kind of Mother Earth, whose name is memorialized in the name of the fifth month, May."
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
Ochoa’s stunning photos were recognized by the annual World Press Photo Awards in 2015. It was the Madrid-based photographer’s second time being honored by the association.
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
Ochoa told National Geographic that witnessing the girls sitting still on the altar as people passed by was like watching small angels.
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
The girls chosen to sit on the altars are usually between ages 7 and 11. Chesnut said they are mostly chosen "on [the] basis of looks and popularity."
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
This year, five girls will sit in the altars across town, according to the city’s website. In addition to sitting for two hours, they will participate in a flower-offering ceremony and a parade.
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
The feast is held in Colmenar Viejo, a large town about 25 miles outside of Madrid. The altars are erected near the main square of the town, according to a description of the photo project.
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
“The pictures are very simple,” Ochoa de Olza told National Geographic, “but they have layers. That is what I like about shooting traditions. It’s another way of telling the story of my country. And I am discovering those traditions myself. They will last a bit longer than the breaking news that will be gone in a week — traditions will evolve over time, some will disappear completely.”
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
Families of the girls erect altars celebrating the renewal of flowers and plants. Rosemary and other aromatics adorn the scene.
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
The celebration has spread to other parts of the region, including the Madrid barrio of Lavapiés, Chesnut said.
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
Ochoa told National Geographic that he hopes his work connects people with the rich culture and history of his homeland.
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Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/ AP Photo.
“We are all doing strange things in all parts of the world,” he said. “Everything is mixed with religion in Spain. And I find it interesting in the 21st century [that] we are still doing these festivals — it is a way to see where we are going and where we have come from — looking back to look forward.”
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