No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May, and hearing our intent
Came here in grace our solemnity.
— Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The great hinge of the year swings to Beltaine, the Feast of Flowering. The cows head to the summer pastures, driven between the smoke of two fires. Flowering branches are brought indoors, to spread the blessings of the green on all therein. Deft hands weave crowns and garlands of blossoms, ornamenting all for the rite.
At modern Pagan gatherings, Beltaine is commonly celebrated with the weaving dance of the Maypole – and the inevitable laughter when the ribbons tangle or someone heads in the wrong direction. Contrary to popular belief, Maypoles aren’t an ancient Celtic tradition; they appear to be native to Germanic societies, although the concept of a sacred tree – bilé in Irish lore – is found in cultures worldwide. That doesn’t mean, of course, that modern Druids can’t have a Maypole in their rites; maypoles have certainly become an entrenched part of Beltaine traditions through the decades, and that’s unlikely to end soon.
Flowers, of course, are a traditional part of May Day festivities, as are visiting holy wells. Beltaine, however, is primarily considered a fire festival; the name is often translated as the “fires of Bel” for the Gaulish Belenos or the Irish Bilé, although whether Bilé is a true God is subject to debate. The “fire” portion of the name – tine in modern Irish – is uncontested, however.
Why fire? Beltaine heralds the start of summer, as Samhain does winter in Celtic tradition; the flames are reminiscent of the waxing sun – and perhaps more importantly, the rising tide of life-force. While modern Pagans tend to think of Beltaine as “that sex festival,” it also has themes of purification and protection, as animals and their associated humans leave the bounded home of winter and venture out into the wider world. Fertility is, of course, part of the festival – as are tricks and spontaneous connections with spirits, especially the Sidhe. As with Samhain, the spirit-world is close and many Celtic tales are associated with this time of the year.
I’ve been Pagan and a Druid for quite some time, and have seen Beltaine celebrated in a wide range of ways. In that spirit, I offer the following thoughts for those who struggle to find a way to celebrate the season.
You don’t have to do that sex thang.
Pagans in general are a fun-loving folk, and Beltaine can bring a gamut of randy jokes and flirtatious behavior. For individuals with trauma or pain associated with sexuality, this can become uncomfortable or even frightening. For those of us who lack an appreciation of juvenile humor or reserve our sexual impulses for significant others, a lot of common Beltaine “customs” can just be flat-out annoying.
I admit: I became discouraged by Beltaine as a young woman, when I literally had to hide in a horse stall during one ritual to avoid unwanted attention. (No, not exaggerating – sadly.)
Good news: You don’t have to celebrate the holiday that way.
When I celebrate the Feast of Flowering, I honor Boann – Goddess of the river and wisdom – and her husband Nuada, the Sword-God and light of truth. I focus my celebration on the Earth itself, making and offering caudle – a type of porridge – to the land, and bannock with nine knobs to the critters, one species each knob. Most often, that latter is preventative in nature: “I give this to the carpenter ants, so they don’t invade my house this upcoming year.” I also walk between the smoke (or at least the light, if I’m doing this indoors) of two fires and relight the hearth-candle for the season.
Key concepts: The awakening Earth and her creatures, light, fire, and the purification and protection offered by fire.
Let’s face it: Maypoles are pretty impractical, even for those who want to celebrate the traditional fertility festival. Yes, there are instructions available on how to build and install one of PVC pipe for even the smallest of backyards, but not everyone is particularly handy with that sort of thing. If I tried to install a Maypole by myself or with a small group of grove mates, chances are that I would end up in the ER after doing something clumsy and Youtube-worthy.
Enter the Alternative Maypole! (Not to be confused with alternative facts; a pole and maying are actually involved.)
One year, White Cat Grove decorated its own interpretation of a Maypole: a seven-foot tall branch. Rather than dance around it, grove members decorated it with ribbons, feathers, beads and butterflies as the ritual act; we also decorated a wreath, which we then attached to the top to symbolize the union of male and female. Afterward, you can offer your creation to the Earth or the fire, or keep it around as a power-object. (I have the pole and wreath to this day in my ritual room.)
Key concepts: Male (something linear), female (something circular), ornamentation, joy.
The well-dressed well
Boann is, of course, a river goddess; Nuada is also associated with fresh water, as well as the light of truth and possibly clouds or the sky. Belenos/Bilé, the God most often associated with Beltaine in Keltria, is associated with bonfires as well as trees. With this in mind, you you can choose to focus your Beltaine ritual on the intersection of fire and water or, alternatively, tree and water, sky and water, etc.
Consider well-dressing: Decorate a watery place (springs are traditional, but a bowl of water would work just fine) with flowers, cloth strips known as clooties, even candles if you’re working with a bowl. In this polluted age, the waters could use the extra blessings and energy.
Key concepts: April showers bring May flowers, the purity and protection of our water sources.
Do I have to do the May Queen thing?
Personally, I’ve never enjoyed the selection of May Queen and May King, although I understand the concept. There is a beauty of embodying community’s energy for the year – which is how I’ve often seen this interpreted in Pagan groups – but there also is a weight of expectation to it. The Queen and King dyad can be especially problematic for groups with an unequal number of men and women, and the genderqueer also can feel left out.
Perhaps it’s childish of me, but I admit there’s also the current of “Crap, I never win anything” associated with it. (Fun fact: I won exactly one drawing-by-chance in my life. The prize: A potted daffodil. My luck ends there, at least when it comes to winning stuff. Needless to say, I don’t bother playing the lottery.)
While we didn’t have enough men – well, any – for the May King, White Cat Grove did select a May Queen one year with the traditional bean in the cake. The next time, we said “Screw it” and unanimously elected my cat Missy as the May Queen. She had a blast that year, greeting everyone at the door when they arrived and even walking between the two fires.
So, as with everything Beltaine, you can skip the whole May Day royalty bit if you want to.
Key concepts: If it doesn’t work for you, screw it. (Not literally, unless it’s consensual.)
Happy Maying, all!