Beltaine has long been one of my favourite of the High Days, but almost more than any other it is a festival that really requires a community to fully enjoy; the larger the better. Let’s face it… dancing the Maypole as a solitary just doesn’t cut it. Decking oneself out in flowers or in horns for a private ritual seems almost wasteful. Beltaine can be a wonderful time for a couple, as my wife and I know, but it really just can’t compare with being part of a large community Beltaine celebration with Morris Dancers greeting the dawn, flowers everywhere, the crowning of the May Queen, feasting, and the Maypole itself.
I look forward to the time when Neo-Paganism becomes a common and accepted religious path such that even the smallest towns have enough members of the Pagan community to support local festivals. It is in fact partly because of Isaac’s vision of ADF as an open and public force for building Pagan communities that drew me to the organization in the first place. But I digress… back to Beltaine.
This is my second High Day essay and I am still quite unsure what level of detail to go into. Every book on any Neo-Pagan topic written in the last twenty years contains at least a synopsis of the festivals, and there are countless lengthy essays available on sites such as The Witches’ Voice. I’m not inclined to recount all of the common knowledge on the subject, which I summed up in the first paragraph anyway. I think it will be more interesting and ‘fresh’ to discuss how the festival may or not still be celebrated by the larger community in which I live, and what the festival marks within the wheel of the year of the land on which I live.
Beltaine, or May Day as it is generally called by non-Pagans… well, wait; this is a subject that many Pagans even get confused over. I have seen some writers say that Beltaine occurs on April 30th and is therefore somehow separate than May Day. Other writers say that Beltaine occurs on May 1st and is therefore the same as May Day. The fact is that both are partially correct, and entirely wrong. Celtic festivals began on the evening before the High Day and ended at the evening of the High Day. Hence Beltaine proper begins on the evening of the last day of April with the lighting of the Beltaine fires, and goes through to the evening of May Day. This is also entirely wrong since the original Celtic calendar had no such months as April and May. Originally the festival occurred when the sun was at a particular position in the constellation Taurus, which may or may not actually fall on the dates that we now call April 30th and May 1st.
Anyway, as I was saying, Beltaine has a long history in many parts of Europe. Most Pagans see it as a distinctly Celtic celebration, but in fact similar festivals were celebrated by the Germanic tribes as Walpurgis Night and by many of the Slavic cultures as well by a variety of names. Although Easter is marked by a rich array of pre-Christian symbols borrowed from the Pagan fertility festivals of Beltaine and Ostara, unlike many other Pagan High Days Beltaine was not actually co-opted by the Christians. As a result, its practice never completely ceased in some parts of Europe. Unfortunately, very few if any Beltaine traditions were ever brought over to the Americas. And, of course, starting in the 19th Century May Day started to be celebrated as International Worker’s Day in much of the world, vastly changing the nature of the day even in those areas where Beltaine traditions had survived. In most of North America this never really caught on; although Labour Unions and socialists do recognise International Worker’s Day on May 1st, the official “Labour Day” comes at the beginning of September and tends to be a celebration of barbeques rather than Workers’ Rights. I digress slightly, but the fact is that at least here in Canada, May Day is typically viewed by the average citizen as a complete non-event.
On that note, let’s switch gears and talk about the land, because Beltaine is a particularly important time here. I happen to live in what the farmers and gardeners call ‘Zone 3a’, which is distinguished by the fact that April 30th marks the last day on which we can typically expect frost. This means that Beltaine is the busiest time of year for gardening as we rush to get seeds and transplants into the ground and keep them carefully watered while they grow, all the while giving sacrifice to Demeter that she provide a bountiful harvest. The flowers begin to blossom, and our altars are adorned with their colours. The trees suddenly erupt, and become full of nests. At Beltaine, the whole Earth seems to sing, and we along with Her.