by Sarah Connor
Welcome to the Beltane prompt. Beltane, or May Day, is the second of the druidic cross-quarter festivals that we will be looking at this year.
I always feel that Beltane is “my” festival. I was born on May Eve, 30 April, so I’ve always had a public holiday linked into my birthday. I felt most affronted a couple of years ago when that holiday was deferred just because Kate and William were getting married! And now I’ve ended up living just outside Torrington, a small town in Devon where May Day is massively important.
Beltane means “bright fire” and fire is really important to this festival. Animals were purified by being passed between two fires, and couples could jump a fire together to pledge themselves to one another. Sacred wells and water were also an important aspect of Beltane.
Our local celebration is pretty rough and ready. There are other May Day celebrations in the south-west of England that are more famous (and more touristy) – like the Obby Oss festival at Padstow, and the Helston floral dance. Interestingly, I can’t think of anywhere within easy travelling distance of Torrington that celebrates May Day. I do have a theory about that. On the western edge of the town, just outside the cemetery, there is a sacred well. I wonder if in pre- and early Christian times that well was a place of pilgrimage at Beltane. Knowing Torrington as I do, I suspect that if that were the case there would have been somebody in the village who would have been happy to provide cider and pasties – and a local celebration was born! That’s all conjecture, of course, but in this wet and rural area where springs and wells are two a penny, I can’t think of another local sacred spring.
So, what happens in Torrington for May Fair? The whole town attends. The town is decked out with furze, bright yellow flowers hung above every window in the town square. The primary and secondary school are both closed for the day. The last year of the primary school elects a May Queen. She is crowned in the square at about 11 o’clock, by which time everybody has already had a couple of drinks. She sits on a throne under the maypole and the children dance a weaving ribbon dance around her. There’s some raucous entertainment from the local men, there’s a funfair behind the market, and everybody has too much to drink. Kids run a little wild, teenagers sneak cans of cider behind the ghost train. I suspect more than one local lost their virginity at May Fair – and I wonder if there might be a January baby boom in Torrington.
And that is as it should be.
Beltane is a celebration of fertility. The purification of animals and the jumping fires is about ensuring fertility. Traditionally young people stayed up all night celebrating in the woods. Some people will try to tell you that the maypole is the tree of life, but it looks pretty phallic to me.
Beltane is the joy of fertility, and potential. It is also a time when opposites come together: fire and water, the goddess and the horned god. It’s a time for love.
It’s a time, too, to reflect on what we are planting spiritually. Are we planting seeds that will grow into a crop that we want? Or are we planting things that will harm us? Do we need to change?
Let’s remember, too, that May Day is International Workers Day. We associate it with big parades in Russia and Eastern Europe, but it was chosen to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, when workers gathered to demand an 8-hour day – so Americans can rightly claim it as their own. I was brought up in a heavily unionised coal mining town in South Yorkshire, so International Workers Day was definitely on my radar. Meanwhile, over in Catholic Ireland my husband would have been gathering lilacs to put on the classroom altar to Mary, because May was her month. It’s hard not to connect a celebration of Mary with a pagan celebration of the goddess. And the workers? Well, all that fertility is hard work. At this time of year my apple trees are covered in worker bees, busily pollinating, and I’m right next to them hovering over my seedlings.
How do you write about this? Well, you can think about the joy of the union of the horned god and the goddess. You could think about how opposite energies work together to bring about something new. You can think about the work that goes into fertility – not just those busy bees, but also the planting, watering, fertilising that we do to ensure yield; the energy plants put into their blossom and their fruit; the way a male bird feeds the female as she sits on the eggs; the way a mother cares for her young. You could write about water, essential for life – falling as rain, flowing as river, rolling as the ocean. You could think about fire – the sun itself, giving energy to everything that grows on this planet; the fires that are essential for some seeds to germinate; the fire of inspiration and life that burns inside each one of us.
Whatever you choose to write about, remember that this is a celebration, of new life, of love and of the endless bounty of this planet.
Thank you Sarah for this inspiring challenge, which has filled me with the joys of spring!
Great challenge Sarah. May Beltane be the special candle on your birthday cake!
Sarah, how lovely to read your wonderful essay. My first Beltane in Tofino, many years back, I attended a Beltane ceremony where the local witches jumped across the fire. It was very cool. I am also reminded of how, in Ireland, villagers would go to the big fire in the common to take hot coals home to light their own hearth fires – such a lovely custom. I have never seen young women dancing around a Maypole, but it must be so lovely. Thank you for this lovely prompt. And, like Brendan, wishing you all good things on your birthday and always.
LikeLiked by 1 person
This seems a particularly necessary celebration this year.. Happy Birthday! and thanks for the inspiration. (K)
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hello all, you may know that Sarah Connor has been fighting breast cancer for years and recently had to undergo palliative care. The medication she was put on made her pretty ill and she was hospitalized for about a month. She had prepared this post some time in advance and I emailed her last weekend to see how she was doing (she hasn’t been posting to her blog). She replied that she was out of the hospital and home and hoped to participate here this week, but obviously she’s still struggling. We celebrate her spirit hope body and mind will make it back for the dance. – Brendan
On this day, I’d like to strongly commend migrant farm laborers for their very hard work, yet for minimal pay. Here in the Greater Vancouver region, I’ve observed over the last few decades that the strong work ethic exceptionally practiced by them is demonstrably notable in the produce harvesting sector. It’s one of typically hump-busting work that almost all post second or third generation Canadians won’t tolerate for themselves. Watching them, I even feel a bit guilty, as strange as that may sound. Considering it from a purely human(e) perspective, I don’t see why they should have to toil so for minimal pay and not also I.
Migrant farm laborers work very hard and should be treated humanely, including regular access to Covid-19 vaccination and proper workplace protection, but often are not. While I don’t favor Canada-based businesses exporting labor abroad at low wages while there are unemployed Canadians who want that work, I can imagine migrant farm workers being fifty to a hundred percent more productive than their born-and-reared-here Canadian counterparts.
I anticipate that if they (as citizens) resided here for a number of decades, their strong work ethics and higher-than-average productivity, unfortunately, likely would gradually diminish as these motivated laborers’ descendant generations’ young people become accustomed to the relatively easier Western way of work. One can already witness this effect in such youth getting caught up in much of our overall liberal culture — attire, lingo, nightlife, as well as work. I’ve also found that ‘Canadian values’ assimilation often means the unfortunate acquisition of a distasteful yet strong sense of entitlement.