Monday, 15 June 2009


(May eve – 30th April)

Beltaine is the glorious season of rich growth when scarcity gives way to plenty and it is time to celebrate Mother Earth in all her gifts. May Day is the call to awaken. It is one of the great celebrations in Europe, celebrated from Ireland to Russia. Finally the winter is over and the cattle are sent to their summer pastures. In times past bonfires would smoulder and the cattle would be cleansed of ticks by being driven through a thick medicinal smoke of burning herbs. Since Beltaine got its name from its bonfires it is the perfect time to have one.

The month of May was always a time of relief in agricultural communities when it was possible to feel the warmth in the air. Young people were allowed out all night to hunt through the woods and coppices for the first branches of flowering hawthorn, and bring them back to decorate their homes. They would also collect the green of the sycamore tree, the wood traditionally used to make love spoons.

Here we go gathering knots of may,
Knots of may, knots of may,
Here we go gathering knots of may,
On a cold and frosty morning

As the month of May suggests it is the time to bring out the Maypole and join in the traditional dancing around it with ribbons. There is no real evidence that Maypole dancing was a Pagan or Celtic tradition. The Maypole dancing that we know today was brought to England by John Ruskin, a Victorian who ran a Teacher Training College. He had seen the dancing around a pole with ribbons in Italy, brought it back to England, and taught it to his teachers who then went out and taught it to school children. There may well have been May Day dances around a tree that had been decorated with the May branches. These may have been included with the May Day civic dances that were around in the 15th and 16th Centuries but the Puritans frowned on such happy behaviour, linking it with Pagan activities, and tried to put a stop to it. (You may like to find out more about the dances from the website )

Be that as it may, for many the maypole dance is still the symbol of this season, weaving and celebrating the sexuality of male and female together. For others the white maypole lifted high above the ground is the symbol of the white mare of Rhiannon/Aphrodite/Venus who rode onto the land from the ocean to teach us about the sacredness of love between two people. For others it is the weaving of summer warmth and good growth, fertilising the sun power from above with the nourishing earth power below. According to Marian Green in her book ‘A Calendar of Festivals’ dancing around the maypole represents the tidal patterns of energy being sent down from the sun and the unwinding shows how the power is returned to the sky in a cyclic and unending pattern.

Other rites at this time may include the jumping of the water. A narrow part of a stream can be used to jump over and give thanks for water and hope that there will be enough to feed the land and crops for the growing months. Some may like to jump the cauldron with another person for whom they wish to give thanks. Children love this ritual and jump with family, friends and loved ones, even favourite teddies have been included.

May Day rites also include the Holly and Oak Lords battling for the hand of the maiden who, after her mating, would become the Mother and bring forth the following spring. After this fight, when he is beaten, the Holly Lord retires with his hounds to the Wild Wood to rest until he is recalled at Samhaine. This would take place on May eve. In Cornwall they still tell of the various battles between dark and light, good and evil with Robin Hood, St George and the dragon, or St Michael. Some still have the crowning of the May Queen, a modern version of Maid Marian, the ancient White Lady who could change herself into a deer to hide in the forest, who brought healing water from the secret springs and who cared for all the wild creatures and the forest.

Trees have long been the centre of our celebrations. At this time it is good to decorate the May Tree representing the tree of life. Hang ribbons, flowers and eggshells saved from Eostar on the tree. You may have stayed up all night on May eve making things to decorate your tree (and yourself). Include lots of singing, games and dancing to welcome the summer. Also on May Day those who wanted to look after their skin would be out before sunrise, seeking a patch of dew to bathe their face and eyes.

Many weddings would take place at this time of year, the young couples pledging themselves for ‘a year and a day’. To seal their bond they would leap over a bonfire hand in hand. We have chosen this time to write a letter to someone we love or care about, to tell her or him how much s/he is appreciated. It may be someone you have been married to for some time and you wish to renew your vows or express things that you don’t often say, or it may be a daughter, son, parent or friend. It could even be someone you would like to know better. We have great fun with our letter writing, which we feel is something of a dying art. We use lovely bright coloured pens and illustrate the letters with drawings or pressed flowers. My daughter is especially fond of the scented pens that are available now. If we don’t get round to writing we try to say something special in a ‘phone call or when we see the person but a letter is very special so it is always worth making the effort.

Spend time out of doors, have picnics, play outdoor games, throw a ball round, play hoop and ball (throw a hoop and someone else try to throw a ball through it when it is in the air); all target games are good like archery for example. At this time of year, as at the others, it is an opportunity to let go of unwanted things in our lives. One way we have marked the season (as yet I’ve not done this with children but I don’t see why one shouldn’t) is to light a bonfire and ask the people who will attend to wear or bring something that represents a part of her or himself that s/he wishes to be rid of. They would then at an appropriate moment throw it on the fire, give thanks for the lesson it has taught them and then ask for a blessing on all that they wish for the summer months to come.

For the May Day is the great day
Sung along the old great track
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back

Ian Anderson

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