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A History of Beltane for Families

My favorite Pagan holiday after Yule is Beltane, and I want to talk a little about it a bit it, especially because there are many misconceptions about what it is.  This blog post is based on a series of Facebook posts I made, each one featuring a different tradition.

The May Pole

What does the May Pole represent?  There are a lot of sources on the internet that claim that the May Pole represented a phallus, in line with the other fertility aspects of the holiday, but this is an unfounded theory, nothing more, made popular by Sigmund Freud.  Why does that not surprise me?

King James, whom we thank for the King James Bible translation, declared that the May Day celebrations, then secular, were harmless.

The first May Pole in America wasn't far from the Plymouth Plantation, and it was destroyed by the pilgrims in 1637. The Pilgrims were religious fanatics, and anything that could represent anything Pagan was demonized for centuries, even if they did survive in popular culture.  

But the May Pole is relatively innocent. They used to be quite popular in the United States, especially for children, but they lost popularity as the culture changed. Here's a darling song from the late 1800's that school children once sang, and it's a favorite at my home.
Holiday Songs And Everyday Songs and Games

These pictures are from a Beltane celebration 4 years ago in the Salt Lake area, but they haven't done it since.

So if the May Pole isn't phalic, what is it? It's the Axis Mundi, otherwise known as the Cosmic Axis. It's where the heaven meets the earth. It's the north and south poles. In Marvel comics, it's the Washington Monument in Washington DC, haha. It's Yggdrissil. It's totem poles. It's the steeples of Christian churches (truly!). It is the obelisk monuments. It is the human body in disciplines such as Yoga and Tai Chi. It is where the four cardinal directions meet. There is a lot of symbolism in the Axis Mundi, and one of them is to honor the turning of the seasons.

May Day marked the beginning of summer and the growing season for much of Germany, England, and the Nordic countries where it was celebrated. In Sweden, the May Pole looks a little different, and is part of Midsummer celebrations.

I love the May Pole dance because it is a folk tradition of ancient origin, and one that was done by my ancestors. Just as the Native American dances are sacred to indigenous tribes, I feel that doing the May Pole dance is a way we can honor our ancestors and connect with our ancient past, regardless of one's religious beliefs. And it's certainly something anyone of any race can appreciate and enjoy.

Finally, I love the May Pole dance because, as the axis mundi, it is one of the world's most beautiful traditions that reflect the Polar Configuration, which is something that will be familiar to those who have dug into the Electric Universe at all. I imagine the polar configuration would have looked very much like being under a May Pole with it's streaming ribbons! Thunderbolts Project YouTube Channel

The May Bush/ Tree

I am really excited as a school, all of Utah's Athenian Academy families are reading a book right now that is based on this tradition. It is written from the perspective of a tree named Red, who begins the story by explaining that they are a wish tree, and the people of the neighborhood make wishes and tie a ribbon to the tree, traditionally on May 1st, but people may come any time of the year. This year, there is a family with a special need, and the tree breaks some of the tree rules to make the world better.

There is a rich history behind the tradition of a wish tree, and I'll share some of the tid-bits I've learned.

Beltane is a sacred holiday especially for fire and water. Belenus was a Celtic god who was known for his healing powers. The name "Beltane" means "Bel's fire". The holiday marks the beginning of summer when animals would go out to pasture. The earliest mentions of the holiday say that two large bonfires would be built on Beltane, and cattle would be driven between them for purification and luck. There are places in Ireland that still do this to this day.

But the first May trees came from the healing powers of water. The first bucket of water drawn from a well this day was said to have healing powers. If a person was sick, a strip of their clothing would be cut, dipped in this water or taken to a nearby sacred fountain, and then tied to a tree or bush, but preferably a Hawthorn tree. It was then believed that the fae that lived in the tree would heal the sick person.

Later the tradition expanded to more general wishes, although the fae would be more likely to grant noble wishes than selfish ones. An individual family might have their own May bush or tree, but it was more common to have a community tree. It would be decorated with ribbons, painted egg shells, and feathers.

As time went on, it became more of a spectacle. Sometimes a whole bush would be dug up, decorated, pulled in a cart, and become part of the May Day parades. But the May Bush became controversial when neighboring communities became extremely competitive. Who would have the biggest and best May Tree? Mischievous youth would, with their elder's encouragement, go to neighboring May Trees and vandalize and steal from them. A May tree might be decorated with very expensive ribbons, and be guarded before the festivities. Violence on occasion ensued, and in England, the May Trees were banned for a time. They were also banned completely during the Puritan England era and never became as popular after it ended.

But it is making a strong come-back, especially in Ireland, England and Scotland where the tradition originated. https://www.rte.ie/.../1046522-may-day-alert-bringing.../

Robin Hood Day

It's crazy to me that I've been studying Beltane for years now, and always been a fan of Robin Hood, but only this year did I make the connection, thanks to reading a book I bought about Beltane. Having made the link, there's actually a lot of information on the internet about it.

The original holiday celebrated a marriage, and while there are different personas based on the location and tradition, the groom was the sun, and the bride was mother earth. More on that later, but for the purposes of Robin Hood day, let it suffice to say that the holiday changed over time, especially with the Christianization of Europe.

The poor of England needed a hero, and Robin Hood became that hero. There is an excellent documentary about Robin Hood we just watched on the Roku channel, and also, on Wondrium, we recently listened to a lecture from the series "Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature". Both give a great overview of why Robin Hood became so popular, and I recommend them both.

England needed a hero, but May Day was the celebration that brought him into popular knowledge. The fertile god was replaced with the King of May Day, Robin Hood himself. He was also known as the Lord of Misrule, a title that was also given to a peasant during Christmastide. And it was in this context that Maid Marian was created. Early tales of Robin Hood did not have a romantic partner for our hero, but what is a marriage festival without a feminine hero? Maid Marian was sometimes part of Robin's merry troop, but later, as the nobility began to love Robin Hood as well, she became a proper lady.

Robin Hood's merry men also became a part of the festival, especially with Morris dancing. In earlier times, the dancing, with it's sticks and bells, was a way to scare off evil spirits and wake up the earth for better crops. In the Robin Hood days of May Day, they took on a form of mock combat, where sticks became swords, and instead of the evil spirits being vanquished, it was the Sheriff of Nottingham. Morris dancing lost it's popularity during the industrial revolution, but there is a strong revival of the art alive in the British Isles today.

I'm so extremely thrilled to have learned about the connection with Robin Hood. In the past, my girls have had more fun on Beltane than the boys because they got to dress up in pretty dresses with flower crowns and fairy wings, but the boys didn't like the flower crowns as much, and none of them really seemed interested in me making them a crown of antlers. But Robin Hood? OMG, there are so many fun things to do with the boys to celebrate Robin Hood day! We bought some bows and arrows, which I'll be using to share with the community. And I'll come up with some Robin Hood attire for them as well. As if Beltane wasn't already awesome. Truly, after Yule, Beltane is the coolest in my book!

Feasting

There was a lot of delectable food created for this holiday to celebrate, and these videos touche on some of the traditional foods. One ingredient I find interesting is rose water. Between this video and a few others I've seen, such as Tasting History with Max Miller, I'm gathering that it must have been a rather common ingredient in old England.

Morris Dancing

In the "May Day Feast" from Absolute History video above, we meet some Morris dancers. I touched on them a little bit in my Robin Hood post. Before the Robin Hood days of May Day, the dancers would scare away the evil spirits while also celebrating the good spirits whose time had come with the beginning of summer.

In this video, the Morris dancers have created a relatively new persona, Jack the Green. He dies at the end of the festivities, but he will rise again. The theme of birth, death and especially resurrection also played a part in ancient Morris dancing. Just as the seasons change, winter has changed to spring, and life has sprouted everywhere. In the Robin Hood days, Morris dancing took this idea and turned it into a kind of mock combat. Sometimes the Sheriff of Naughtingham was killed or defeated, but he would somehow come back. Other times, Robin Hood might have been captured by the Sheriff, but he would somehow escape. Or he might even be killed, but others would come to take his place, for Robin Hood was not just an individual man, he was an idea. Indeed, many court records show that outlaws would take on his name. The Robin Hood traditions of Morris dancing have mostly died, and the revivalists have favored some of the older meanings. Newer instruments like the violin are a favorite for the folk dance.

These are Morris fire dancers, who painted their faces black and red. There is quite some controversy, as their makeup has been compared to the black-faced minstrels from America's Civil War era, but there is no connection, and it has nothing to do with race.

There are also Morris dancers who dance with green-face, such as those in the "May Day Feast" video above. which is representative of the forest spirits.  For both types, it is a disguise to make it harder to recognize the dancers.  Dancing was once considered to be a form of begging, which was illegal.  They didn't want to be recognized, even though on certain holidays the culture emboldened the poor. 

But more than that, the disguise was originally meant to scare and fool the spirits.  It isn't that unlike the Mummers plays, which is part of what inspired modern trick-or-treating. Blackface is more common than green face because coal mining and ash made it easier to to paint one's face black. 

There are African tribes who have traditional white-face paint, and it has nothing to do with race either. So much of ancient English history has been erased, to the point that some even contend that England doesn't have a culture. That's why Morris dancing is so important. And the people who are working hard to revive this tradition need to have the freedom to do so, and the respect of having people learn a little bit about the tradition before they condemn it as racism. That the Morris dancing has seen such a healthy revival is encouraging, beautiful, and it ought to be encouraged. Certainly, they should have a right to perform, even if some people are choosing to be offended for no good reason. Education is the best solution.

Notice how the costumes of the green-face dancers and the black-face fire dancers is very similar. It's called a Rag Coat, and has many small pieces of fabric sewn on it. They can be very colorful.  Even blue-face is a thing! 

But there are many other kinds of Morris Dancing costumes too!  The costumes and styles vary by region, but all are English folk dance.

May Baskets

There was a time when it was customary to wake early in the morning on May Day and deliver baskets with flowers and goodies in them to your neighbors.  Part of the fun was to try and do it without getting caught, which is tricky when there are so many people out and about and catching your gift-givers is also part of the fun.

Louisa May Alcott describes the scene in her novel, "Jack and Jill"

"Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another's arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly; such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling-it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener."

While many of the baskets were given platonically by children to their neighbors, there was also a tradition to give a May Basket to the one you fancy.  If they catch you, you have to give them a kiss.

Fertility Rites

Yep. I know I've made some people curious!

So before I go into this, I want you to imagine that an alien race was doing research on OUR culture first. And here they are looking at wedding traditions. They see that the average American spends $25,000 on weddings. They see Bachelor and Bachelorette parties, and that some of the more extravagant parties include hiring pole dancers, and maybe even prostitutes. They see symbols such as a white wedding dress that is supposed to represent virginity, with the implication that on the wedding night, she will no longer be a virgin. It may not be openly talked about, but everyone who knows anything about life *knows* what will be happening on the wedding night. wink wink.

What are these aliens to conclude, but that these humans are positively obsessed with sex? And that all of these fancy wedding celebrations are nothing more than a celebration of sex? Would they feel comfortable bringing their alien children to a wedding celebration? Are these humans immoral?

Are we? Are our wedding celebrations a hallmark of debauched immorality?

Obviously, I hope it is clear that I don't feel that way. This is a rather extreme way of looking at our modern wedding celebrations. Yes, there is, ideally, sex on the wedding night. But that's not what the celebration is about! It's about celebrating a union between two people as they start their life together, and it's a wonderful thing to celebrate. And naturally, the whole family, including the children, want to be a part of that celebration, and there are ways that we include them. And really, the wild bachelor parties are, for many people, something we only hear about in the fringe minority, and not something we ourselves partake in. Certainly, the wedding celebration itself isn't defined by them.

With that backdrop, let's talk about Beltane. What is it? It was a celebration of the marriage of the Goddess and the God. It is a celebration of the earth and its many fruits this season. It is a celebration of the beginning of summer.

And to celebrate the marriage of the Goddess and the God, humans would also engage in a little fertility of their own. Is fertility *only* sex? Is the act of consummation all it takes? No. The idea was that if you got pregnant on May Day, it was a child blessed by Robin Hood. Or, in earlier times, the Goddess and the God. Any child conceived on this night was celebrated and certainly loved and provided for.

And who would you try to conceive a child with, but a person you hoped to spend your life with?

Youth did indeed go out "A Maying" on April 30th after sundown. And in the woods, there would have been sexual exploration. But it was part of a bigger picture.

In the Robin Hood days, these couples' union was called "Greenwood Marriages". The youth were expected to come back the next morning with armloads of flowers and greenery to decorate their homes and their villages for May Day. And the morning would begin with a grand parade as they returned triumphant, along with seasonal pageantry. Later that day, there might be handfasting ceremonies, or perhaps they would wait until Midsummer, which was also a traditional time for marriages. Usually, the person you paired up with on Beltane was the person you would marry. And what a magical time to do it, when the whole village was decorated in springtime splendor, the likes of which individual families would likely not be able to afford. The celebration was a time of merriment for everyone, as older couples remembered their own nuptials, children danced to the minstrels' songs, and there were festivals, feasting, and sport. And all without going into debt or trying to upstage your neighbors.

Was there infidelity at this time? Well, yeah. Crazy sex parties?  Most certainly.  We have these things in our culture too. We're human and that's our reality. But we, as a society, are not defined by them any more than our ancient ancestors were. It's not what they were celebrating when they engaged in the fertility rites of May. And nine months later, when there was a baby boom, the ancient people who celebrated Beltane celebrated the beginning, and the continuation of human life too.

In this song "Barley Break" was a children's game something akin to tag mixed with a three-legged race. But it was also code-speak, in this context, for pairing off with someone.

This fun video highlights some of the sexual stereotypes of the holiday.  I love listening to Julie Andrews singing it as Guinevere.  It is from the musical "Camelot".

This article may be of interest here. Incidentally, our modern phrase of "tying the knot" comes from ancient handfasting. I was thrilled when Hiccup and Astrid's marriage at the end of the last "How to Train Your Dragon" movie included handfasting.

Rites of Beltane: Sacred Marriage of MayQueen and King, Tying the Knot

The Parade

I have already touched on the parade a bit, but I wanted to bring special attention to it. This procession was a really big deal! Things you might see in the parade include a May Bush, youth with their flower garlands gathered in the woods, pageantry, including elaborate costumes, character portrayals such as Robin Hood, Maid Marian and the merry men, Morris dancers, musicians, and of course the May Pole, freshly cut from the forest and taken to the heart of town where it would be erected for the days' festivities. It was part parade, and part procession, for those in the parade had a destination, and while there would be people who would be content to watch, there were also people who joined when it passed and they would walk together to the festival.

Fun fact! You can see Morris dancers with traditional May flower floral arches in Enchanted in this fun song. It's very visual, no wonder they chose it.  These kinds of floral arches were common in the parades.

This fun documentary shows a May Day parade, and a few other traditions we've talked about. The video is about a Morris dance group in North Carolina, and it follows them through the year. I timed it for when they begin to talk about May Day. If you don't want to watch whole thing, I still recommend skimming through it for the visual parts- they put a lot of effort into their costumes!

Walpurgisnacht

I have been focusing my posts on how May Day was celebrated in the British Isles, but like many of the ancient holidays, it was rather wide-spread throughout Northern Europe.

This Christianized holiday celebrates Saint Walpurgis, who Christianized Germany. The bonfires remained to ward off evil spirits, but now the holiday also celebrated ending witchcraft, and the witches were right up there with evil spirits. So, it was not a great time for Pagans.  And yet, many of the traditions remained the same, and in recent years, there has been a revival as people have celebrated the roots.  

Walpurgisnacht seems to have a more Gothic tone to it than the May Day festivities- the heavy focus on killing witches and warding off evil spirits in the past became the framework for modern celebrations.  Some of the Walpurgisnacht festivals can be rather eccentric.  But it's all in good fun.

April 30/May 1 is exactly opposite in the year from October 31/Nov. 1, which many know as Halloween. In October/November, we recognize death as part of the lifecycle, and in April/May, we recognize birth and regrowth. But for both times, the veil between our world and the spirit realm is thin. Bonfires and dancing were a part of scaring away the evil spirits, and the Morris dancing of England was only a regional practice for what was happening in broader Europe. Walpurgisnacht is another name for the same holiday, with its own regional variations. But for all of them, a bonfire and a celebration of the beginning of Summer were a large part of the celebrations!

The video above is the original "witches dance" that went viral in 2016.  Since then, dozens of videos have popped up of people performing it all over the world!  They made a tutorial video, below, which helped make it happen.  In the United States, it's more common around Halloween, but in Europe, it's still predominantly a Walpurgis thing.


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