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.