Religious holidays can be difficult things to explain to those who fall outside of one’s faith tradition.
Just pretend for a moment that you know nothing about Christianity and imagine someone trying to describe Easter to you…,
…think about it…
…a god briefly sacrifices himself to redeem humanity for the sins of two people who hadn’t been given a moral compass to know they were sinning in the first place…
…and Christians the world over commemorate these events by dressing up in their finery, spending an hour in church, watching their children gather colored eggs, and then filling up on a big ham dinner (just like the apostles would have done).
And yes, I’m glossing over all of the finer points, and it’s all in the presentation, but still…,
…it’s a lot to take in.
Now imagine the difficulty of describing a holy day for which there is no one accepted or even remotely authoritative description.
Welcome to Beltane!
So let us begin from an traditionalist perspective.
A well reasoned polytheist, using a reconstructionist approach, based solely on what we know of the folk practices of the pre-christian Irish, would tell us that Beltane, marked by the first blooming of hawthorn trees, was a time of purification and blessing. It was a day when maidens collected the first dew of the season. It witnessed the release of livestock into the summer grazing lands, but was certainly best known for the lighting of great fires, the light and heat of which was believed to provide magical blessings and protection to man and beast alike in the coming season.
Who? What? Why?!
That whole Easter thing doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?
Again, I’m glossing over some of the finer points, but not by much, because the stone cold truth of it is, we really don’t know much about why any of those things were done. And frankly, I’ve begun to wonder if we haven’t been a little too willing to take things that just happen to have occurred on or near Beltane, as being part and parcel of the holy day itself.
Was it really so much about the movements of cattle into the seasonal grazing areas? Or is that just something that happened around the same time, and over the centuries we’ve colluded the two things.
It’d be a bit like assuming that watching American Football was part of the celebration of the Christian Sabbath in North America. A scholar, in some post-apocalyptic future might conclude that feasts of pizza and libations of cheap beer were likewise, part of the weekly observance, based purely upon the evidence at hand.
Now there are a couple things going on here.
Firstly, there is the importance of honoring our ancestors and finding our own way to the traditions and beliefs that they held sacred. We do this through careful examination of the evidence at hand, with an eye toward preserving and reviving that which they left for us through the ages. In this way we do service to them and to the gods which called us to this path.
That’s part of it.
The other thing that is going on is a negative reaction toward anything which smells even vaguely of NeoPaganism.
Where the festival of Beltane is concerned, the general opinion seems to be that the old Victorian occultists who started the revival in Beltane observances, were really just looking for an excuse to shuck their knickers, alone or in groups, and that adding a ritual component to the lusty month of May was all the provocation they needed. As their spiritual descendants, the NeoPagans may have picked up a reputation for treating Beltane as an orgy at fireside: all drum circles and gypsy dancing, while ignoring history and tradition.
And maybe that’s fair. It might be a good idea to pop over to the Wiccasphere and see if there’s anything unseemly going on. You know…, for science.
10 Ways to Celebrate Beltane
(oooh, this ought to be good)
Light a bonfire (a little on-the-nose, but okay)
Pick flowers (ooookay)
Wear a Flower Crown (at least those flowers from #2 aren’t going to waste)
Do some Divination (actually, that’s entirely historical, something’s wrong)
Dance (also appropriate to the holiday)
Leave out offerings to the Fae (am I reading from the wrong lists)
Decorate a tree or bush with ribbons (…)
Take a Ritual Bath (NOW things are finally getting saucy)
Volunteer at an animal shelter (what just happened?)
Marshmallows! My hand to the gods, I saw this listed on two of the dozen or so lists I rooted through in the course of my “research”. Sure, there were indeed a few references to fertility magic and love spells, but a good naked frolic in the wild seems to be largely off the menu.
That, or I’m just not being invited to the good parties anymore.
Either way, we’ve got a majority of folks advertising Beltane like it was your local craft fair, while a small but vocal minority would like to point out that Maypoles are an imported tradition from English and German speaking folks, and if you could all please just be careful with your frolicking, as you are likely to frighten the cows.
The truth if it, as usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle.
There are plenty of things to suggest that Beltane IS, among other things, a fertility festival.
Those maidens I mentioned earlier, collecting the first dew of the season? They bathed in it. A ritual intended to increase and preserve their natural beauty.
The light and heat from those Beltane fires, was believed to not only protect the herds from harm, but to bless them – to increase their bounty – make them more fertile. I wonder what we are supposed to think that same light and heat would do to the men and women who danced around those fires?
I wonder how anyone could believe, after standing near a great fire, feeling the energy of it moving through them, that joining in dance around those flames and sharing in that energy, passing it each to the other, could be anything other than a sexual act.
Standing at to opposite end of the year from Samhain, during which we honor the dead, Beltane comes to us at that moment when the generative power of life is at its strongest. The veil between this world lifts but twice a year, once to allow the spirits of the dead to transcend this mortal plane, and once again at May Eve, to allow them back in where they might find new life and new lives to inhabit.
Fire Festival – Fertility Festival – Craft Fair
Celebrate it however you like, but don’t deny the energies at the root of it.
Sex is in the air folks, otherwise my eyes wouldn’t be itching from all this pollen.