Pagan festivals

Pagan festivals (and traditional, Indigenous, Earth-based festivals around the world) are mostly about the cycles of the year. If you were a pastoralist, you had times when the sheep went up to the high pasture and times when they came down again. If you were a grower of crops, your cycle of festivals revolved around when you planted the crops and harvested them. There were times of plenty and times of hunger. Festivals marked the end of one phase and the beginning of another.

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Beltane fires and maypoles

Beltane is coming, and with it, the celebration of love. Spare a thought for those who are left out of all the joyous coupling, and those who are marginalised by less inclusive ways of celebrating love.

Fertility can be re-purposed into a theme of caring for the environment, or of general creativity. And as Doreen Valiente wrote in The Charge of the Goddess, “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals”.
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An inclusive wheel of the year

Some versions of the Wheel of the Year (the eight festivals of Wicca and Druidry) can feel excluding, particularly those that focus on the God and the Goddess interacting through the cycle of the seasons. This mythological construct excludes both polytheists and LGBTQIA people. Some versions of the story are uncomfortable for feminists, as they don’t exactly promote consent culture. It is worth noting that the “cycle of the God and the Goddess” doesn’t appear in any early Gardnerian Books of Shadows (e.g. November Eve, 1949, February Eve, 1949, May Eve, 1949, August Eve, 1949). The solstices and equinoxes were added to the Wiccan year-wheel in the 1950s.

For all sorts of reasons, then, I prefer to go back to the original mythology and symbolism associated with the festivals.

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May Morning in Oxford

May Day is coming. This year, May Day falls on a Sunday, which is great because it means that getting up in time to hear the May morning song from the top of Magdalen Tower in Oxford won’t be quite so difficult (because instead of going to work afterwards, I can go back to bed).

Since moving to Oxford in 2011, I have rolled out of bed well before dawn on May morning to go and hear the singers from the top of Magdalen Tower, singing Hymnus Eucharisticus.

By William Holman Hunt -, Public Domain,

May Morning on Magdalen Tower, by William Holman, Public Domain.

Of course, Magdalen Tower is so tall that hardly anyone gets to see the choir on the top of the tower, so it was helpful of Holman Hunt to paint this picture. One year, I overheard someone in the crowd say “Nah, it’s a recording” – but no, it’s a real live choir, and they have been singing from the top on May morning since the 16th century, though records only begin in the late 17th century, referring to it as an ancient tradition even then.

After the singing and the prayer from the top of the tower (which references “Our Mother, the Earth”), it’s time to watch the Morris dancers and The Hurly Burly Whirly Earl-i in the Morning Band in Broad Street. The Whirly Band are a group of local musicians and bands who get together just for May morning. Dressed in green, they play on the steps of the Clarendon Building, and most of the local Pagans can be found among the crowd dancing to their tunes. Here are some photos of May Day 2014.

Here’s a video of May Day 2013:

This year, because May morning is on a weekend, up to 15,000 people are expected to turn up for the festivities – so get there early if you’re going, and whatever you do, don’t try driving to Oxford.

Last year, I was sad at Beltane, because my beloved was away in Canada; this year, he will be among the Morris dancers on Broad Street. Lots of local Morris sides will be there, and among them will be the Green Man. One year, I met a guy who said he was the Green Man in the 1960s (or was it the 1950s, I forget).

After working up a good appetite from all the dancing, it’s time for a slap-up breakfast in one of the many cafés in Oxford, which fortunately open to cater for May Day revellers.

There will also be a celebration of socialism with a march through the city, which will be on Saturday 30th. 1 May was chosen as International Workers’ Day for other reasons, but plenty of people have noted the focus of both Paganism and socialism on equality. The links between the Pagan revival and the early socialist movement are fascinating and well worth exploring. It was not only Edward Carpenter who was interested in both socialism and Nature, but others too. 25 April is the 84th anniversary of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout – an important anniversary which commemorates the invasion of hitherto “private” land by ramblers from the nearby mill towns, determined to get access to the moors which they could see soaring above the grimy streets.

“The meaning of the old religions will come back to him. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon.” Edward Carpenter (1889), Civilisation: its cause and cure

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Blue Beltane

Blue Beltane

I love Beltane, it is a beautiful festival. The festival of spring, of lovers, of reawakening. The festival of unabashed sexuality, where people dance round a giant flower-bedecked phallic symbol, and leap naked over the Beltane fire, hand in hand with their beloved, or their lover of the moment. Lingering caresses in the woods, under the blossom and the boughs. The firelight playing on ecstatic dancing bodies, lost in the ecstasy of sexual abandon. The contemporary celebration of Beltane seems to have acquired quite a lot of its character from the Roman festival of Floralia (27/28 April), which also celebrated sexual pleasure, as well as flowers.

But spare a thought for those who don’t quite fit into this idyllic picture. What about people who are single? Being single at Beltane is such a downer… hanging around the Beltane fire, hoping that romance will be kindled by the energies of Beltane. Yep, been there, got the T-shirt. What about the widowed?  Those who have loved long and well, and have lost the ones they love? What about the divorced, the abused, and the traumatised? What about asexuals – what are they supposed to do with a festival that harps on and on about sex? And if the focus is mainly or exclusively on cisgender heterosexual lovers, spare a thought for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and genderqueer people too, and enlarge the focus of the celebration to include same-sex love. What about the frequent portrayal of the God and Goddess of Beltane as white? How about some lovers of colour?   And what about people with disabilities? Other than physical or communication issues, they are no different from the rest of us in their sexual, emotional, and romantic desires.  Beltane, with its themes of excess and wild abandon, can also be difficult for people in recovery, who may feel the need to set boundaries.

Molly Khan, over at the Pagan Families blog, points out that the theme of sexual love is not understandable to children, and suggests other ways of celebrating Beltane if you have kids, and includes themes of creativity, being passionate about an activity or a cause, and talking about other kinds of love, not just the erotic or romantic variety. All excellent suggestions.

This year, I am alone at Beltane. My beloved is 3650 miles away, due to the bureaucratic nightmare of the visa application process. Luckily for us, we can afford flights and administration fees and all the rest of it, and we hope that the situation will be resolved soon. I hope we will be reunited soon, and then it will definitely be Beltane, even if a rather belated one.

However, with about ten days to go before Beltane, I find my thoughts turning wistful and sad, because my darling will not be here to celebrate with me. I love Beltane and its energy and joy, I think it is very fitting to have a festival of sexual love and erotic joy at this time of year, but this year (not for the first time), I find myself outside looking in at the bubble of happiness.

John Beckett has a suggested Beltane ritual for solitary practitioners, exploring the theme of passing between two fires for purification, and passing from winter into summer. In lands where people pastured animals, they would drive them between two fires for blessing and purification at Beltane, so this ritual is based on actual folklore.

I am also very sad because of the number of people who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to cross from Africa, and angry because their displacement was caused by wars fomented by governments propped up by the West, and angry because so little is being done or planned to save them from drowning. I am gutted because Pinakin Patel, a 33 year old man – a husband – collapsed and died in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre on Monday. He was detained there because he and his wife came to England on holiday and the immigration authorities did not believe that they were here on holiday, and carted them off to the detention centre from the airport.

With all this on my mind, it is hard to be all jolly and frolicksome about Beltane. I just can’t manage it. And I don’t suppose for a minute that I am the only one who feels this way. So I give you… Blue Beltane.

I don’t know who it was that came up with the idea of Blue Christmas – an excellent idea, where people who have lost loved ones at Christmas, or who feel excluded in some way from the general jollity of Christmas, can go and sit in a church and quietly share their sorrows.

Well, I feel there needs to be a similar thing at Beltane. Blue Beltane, for people who feel excluded by the general atmosphere of sexual exuberance, for whatever reason they may feel excluded. It might focus on the purificatory aspects of the Beltane fire, as suggested by John Beckett. It might focus on telling each other the stories of why we feel blue at Beltane. It might consist of a ritual to honour the sadness and grief, but gently open us to the possibility of joy – perhaps the walk between two fires suggested by John Beckett would fit this rather well.

One possibility might be building an altar to love, or to the goddesses Flora, Pomona, and/or Maia, or whichever goddesses represent Spring in your tradition. You may want to incorporate a photo of your beloved, or if you are looking for love, something to symbolise your openness to the possibility. (N.B. Love spells directed at a specific person are unethical, because they constrain the will of an individual.)

Another possibility would be to focus on purification and the transition from summer to winter, and moving into a new phase of life. Letting go of attachment to past hurts, and changing perspective. Working through the issues raised by painful experiences, not burying them or denying their importance.

If you are grieving, the grief never entirely diminishes. I read a really helpful thing somewhere, which was the idea that the grief for a lost loved one doesn’t get smaller; rather your soul enlarges to accommodate it.  So I am certainly not suggesting letting go of grief. It is also worth saying that everyone grieves differently. So don’t let anyone else tell you how to grieve, or how long you should grieve.

Of course, Samhain is usually the festival for honouring and connecting with loved ones who have died, so the focus of Beltane should be different, but I think it is no accident that the two festivals are directly opposite each other on the wheel of the year. In a way, they are mirror images of each other. Beltane represents the life force at its strongest, rising to a peak; Samhain represents death. But we cannot have life without death, so in the midst of celebrating the life force, we could also remember that there is a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Perhaps Samhain is for lingering lovingly with ancestors and the beloved dead, and Beltane is for welcoming new life – but we can still keep the memories of loved ones fresh in our hearts, and remember the happy times we shared with them.

I for one will be lighting a candle for all those whose lives were snuffed out untimely by war, drowning, racism, and injustice, and doing all I can to raise awareness and campaign for a compassionate approach to migration – the movement of people just like you and me, who just want a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

However you celebrate Beltane – as a festival of erotic exuberance, as a season of purification, or as a season of wistful longing – I wish you renewed joy and a bountiful summer.

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