Beltane Traditions

Beltane, Beltain, May Day, Whitsun, White Sunday, Whitsuntide, Walpurgis, Floralia: whichever you want to call it, May Day has a long history of folkloric and Pagan traditions.

Traditionally celebrated when the first white flowering trees are blooming (in England this is the Hawthorne, in Ireland the Rowan and here in the US, either the Dogwood or the Magnolia), it is the springtime celebration of fertility, love, passion, fire and creativity. This is the sabbat that really embodies all of the sexuality that Paganism is known for.A day of joy and celebration, May Day celebrates the fertility of the fields and the union of the goddess and the god.

Have you ever heard the phrase “Marry in May, rue the day”? It comes from this holiday. Young lovers traditionally danced the bonfire and then went off to the fields to celebrate in the most traditional way possible. If you wound up pregnant from your May Day celebrations, you would get married in June since you could see that your union would be fruitful. If you married in May, before you knew whether or not you were pregnant, it was considered to be bad luck. There were women would end up pregnant after Beltane, but would choose to not get married, and the children that came from these unions would be given last names like Robinson, Hobson or Robson. These babies were thought to be sired by the gods and you will find many people in the UK with these types of last names today.

Robin Goodfellow, Puck, Hob, the Greenman, whatever you want to call him, was considered to be out and about on Beltane Eve, causing mischief for everybody.  Of course, the Bard of Avon has one of my favorite lines about Puck and his mischief on May Day.

FAIRY:
Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?
PUCK:
Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.
But, room, fairy! here comes Oberon.

Of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is supposed to take place on Midsummer or Litha, but it certainly follows the rules of May Day.

The confused lovers lost in the woods, the fairy King and Queen fighting. Titania and Bottom’s transformation and love. Puck’s mischief…

In it, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, England’s most famous woodland characters are brought to life.

The Maypole is probably one of the most famous traditions, though many don’t know the full cycle of the pole itself. At Yule, you choose a tree to bring inside and decorate (and of course this is where the Christmas tree comes from). When Yule is over, you cut off the branches to use for your Imbolc fires. Then the trunk is what is used for the Maypole at Beltane. Set in the ground, long ribbons are tied to the top. These ribbons were traditionally made from the skirts or slips of girls who had begun menstruating for the first time that year, as a symbol of new, feminine fertility. Dyed (and cleaned), these ribbons are then danced around the Maypole by the young men of the village to represent the weaving of male and female energies and to encourage fertility for the fields and for the people. At the next Yule, when a new tree is brought in, the trunk of the old is burned as the Yule log to finish out the full cycle of the year.

Maypoles are beautiful, intricate creations.

On May Day morning, young women are supposed to wash their faces in the morning dew. This is said to keep you young and beautiful

Morris dancing is done on May Day. Morris dancing is one of the oldest folkloric practice done in the British Isles that continues to this day. Men dance with bells on their feet while striking sticks together to awaken the crops. Women dance with garlands and ribbons to welcome in the May.

After World War I, so many men died that the Morris Dance traditions were almost lost. Thanks to the women though, they were not. Since the men were not home to do it, women started dancing the Morris to make sure the tradition continued. Austin John Marshall wrote a tribute to these women dancers and said:

Many of the old ladies who swell the membership lists of Country Dance Societies are 1914/18 war widows, or ladies who have lost fiancés and lovers. Country dancing kept the memory of their young men alive. When Shirley Collins started singing the piece to the tune of The False Bride, the impact was disturbing, for many people in audiences identified with it. Tears were frequent. Now a sharp relevance in contemporary song is one thing but such a pessimistic effect was not what was intended. So when Shirley recorded the song we showed the way the spirit of the generation sacrificed in the mud of France had been caught and brought to life by the new generation born since World War II by concluding with the chorus of the Staines Morris:

Come you young men come along
With your music, dance and song
Bring your lasses in your hands
For ’tis that which love commands
Then to the Maypole haste away
For ’tis now a holiday.

It’s fifty-one springtimes since she was a bride,
But still you may see her at each Whitsuntide
In a dress of white linen and ribbons of green,
As green as her memories of loving.

The feet that were nimble tread carefully now,
As gentle a measure as age do allow,
Through groves of white blossom, by fields of young corn,
Where once she was pledged to her true love.

The fields they are empty, the hedges grow free,
No young men to tend them, or pastures go see.
They’ve gone where the forests of oak trees before
Had gone to be wasted in battle.

Down from their green farmlands and from their loved ones
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.
There’s a fine roll of honour where the Maypole once was,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

There’s a row of straight houses in these latter days
Are covering the Downs where the sheep used to graze.
There’s a field of red poppies, a wreath from the Queen.
But the ladies remember at Whitsun,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

And of course, the most traditional of all celebrations is the act of sex itself. One of my favorite songs, Wild Mountain Thyme, is about making love in the fields. Many modern adaptations of the song get it all wrong and change the words. But traditionally, this song  celebrates going out into the fields with a lover, and if your lover won’t go with you, you will find another with whom to sleep in a bower (shelter) made from newly blooming flowers of the field. I’ve also heard that Wild Mountain Thyme is used as both a type of birth control and an abortificant, depending on the amounts, so the song takes on even more meaning for women and their fertility than we might expect at first glance.

This was traditionally an orgiastic tradition; note the lyrics tell “if my true love will not go, I will surely find another.” While this lyric is often changed to reflect a more modern romanticism, the early celebrations of Beltane held that young people would wander the fields in the dark of night, entering each others’ bowers while enjoying the presence of the Gods of fertility and spring.

So tonight, drink some May Wine (my recipe found here), find a lover and celebrate in true traditional fashion.

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