When I was a kid May Day was an event. Granted it was in Minnesota, so maybe a bunch of Scandinavians and other Nordic people just really know how to have a good time. Ahem–when you are six years old.
We’d get out our construction paper and make little heart shaped baskets with a handle that we’d fill with candy (one for the basket, one for my mouth – religiously upheld standard) and then go about the neighborhood and do a little reconnaissance before hanging the baskets, ringing the doorbells and dashing. The story went, if the person who answered the door could catch you, you’d have to give them a kiss. Admittedly, everyone enjoyed the chase but typically everyone hesitated on the gooey kissing part. We just didn’t understand the thrill yet.
The grown up version has Celtic origins with fire, promiscuity, and even a little spirit world action. Beltane marked the beginning of the ‘light’ of the annual cycle as winter ended. In Ireland and the United Kingdom of old, Druids reigned over this celebration by lighting massive bonfires where the townsfolk would gather with all their livestock and drive them between to ensure health and fertility of their animals. The fires were considered sacred and people would jump over the fire for a boost of fertility or circle the fire several times to increase their luck for the coming year. It was also said (much like All Hallows Eve), the veil between the worlds was thin at this time, allowing for spirits to flit between the worlds. In Ireland, the faeries would come to bring mischief, and their beautiful Queen would even take souls back if you dared look her in the face.
In the pre-Christian times, sex was looked at a little differently and the rites of Beltane often involved frolicking in the fields before dawn. The day was then spent in outdoor celebrations where they erected a Maypole. This tall pole was decorated with leaves and flowers and festooned with bright ribbons that girls and boys would clutch, as they danced around rhythmically so the ribbons spun a tight pattern that would herald the coming year’s harvest.
The Vikings had their own version of Beltane influenced heavily by Germany. One more time, religions melt into one another as Walpurgis Night (Valborgsmässoafton in Sweden) is celebrated. Named after Catholic Saint Walpurga, this chic was the first known recorded woman author, who detailed the exploits of her brother, a missionary who traveled to Palestine. Just like the Celts, massive bonfires are built to mimic the sun, bringing an end to the darkness of winter. And just like Ireland, it is the time of year for spirit mischief. Trick-o-Treating was often done, wearing scary masks to frighten away ghosts. Basically, I just learned we could have Halloween twice a year. If kids could vote for holidays…
Today, Beltane is less about vouchsafing animals and more about the symbol of fertility. During Winter Solstice, the mother goddess gave birth to Bel, and it would seem the maturity of gods is far superior to our own, as Beltane (fires of Bel) is the celebration of Bel’s maturity and his ability to help ‘seed the earth’, so to speak. Before you get too excited, it isn’t the kind of pagan festival where everyone stripes their clothes off and dances around a bonfire—okay, maybe the dancing part. Though it does celebrate sexuality, it rarely uses the act of sex itself in their rituals, instead opting for the implication.
One of the largest Beltane celebrations can be found Edinburgh, Scotland. I’m sad to say I missed this rite by only a few short months. Timing is everything, people. During Edinburgh’s celebrations they crown a May Queen who represents the earth goddess and marry her to the Green Man who represents Bel. It is said winter ends when the Green Man strips away his drab costume to reveal his green painted, almost naked self.
Though Beltane isn’t always religiously practiced by pagans, it is still viewed as an important rite of spring, shedding winter and embracing the abundance of summer. If you are looking for a unique festival with gorgeous pageantry, book your tickets now.