Friday, 1 May 2020

A Slow and Seasonal Guide to May Day and Beltane


Today is the first of the month and its beginning is a little more special than your usual first of the month. The frothy and excitable white flowers we see crowning the hedgerows are emulated in the festivals of May day and the Celtic pagan festival of Beltane traditionally celebrated on the 1st of May so as to fit neatly between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

This was a time for frivolity and fun where you could truly shake off the trappings of winter and dance barefoot in the light warm evenings and on into the night. Traditionally in Scotland, Ireland and Wales where Beltane is celebrated, pagan rituals were held to protect crops, people and to encourage growth and a good harvest. This would often be done by igniting a large bonfire to ward off evil spirits. Villagers would gather to celebrate the season and ask for blessings on their families. 

Beltane is also a time associated with spirits and faeries and not the sweet kind with wings that we conjure up today. Instead it was believed that these spirits were rather more evil in nature and were guilty of stealing children or swopping a baby with a changeling child. Primroses were said to ward off spirits an faeries, where a primrose lay a faerie could not cross, and so on the 30th of April each year primrose flowers would be picked and a line scattered across the threshold in the hope of keeping evil spirits and mischievous faeries at bay.  


In England and around many countries in Europe the 1st of May is more associated with the celebration of May Day, the ancient festival of spring. Similarly to Beltane this day is a chance to sing, dance, eat and be merry celebrating the growth that surrounds us and the beauty of the warmer weather. 

Not too long ago in this country we would see the crowning of the May Day Queen which caused much excitement and a fair bit of competition between local village girls. To be crowned May Day Queen was a great honour and would of course help in any quest to catch the eye of a local boy. Other English traditions include dancing around a May pole and the historical Morris dancing. 

In Oxford where I live May Day is a cause for great celebration. Swathes of people will dance the last night of April away before gathering below the tower at Magdalen Bridge to hear the choir sing at 6am. For many years it would end in participants jumping into the river but in recent years the bridge has been closed to prevent injuries. 

Of course this year May Day or Beltane will look rather different. There will be no festivals, no gatherings on bridges at 6am and no dancing round a village bonfire. But there are still many ways we could celebrate and enjoy May Day from our own homes; you could create a fire pit in your back garden and enjoy watching the mesmerising flames as the night darkens around you. Look at all the beautiful abundant nature around you from the green leaves that have filled the trees, to the white blooms in hedgerows and the cow parsley lining our roads, and give thanks for it all. Create your own May Day crown with flowers collected on your one walk a day and pick a few extra's to adorn your doorway and table tops. Cook up a feast of seasonal foods such as asparagus, new potatoes, salads, peas, lamb, rhubarb and wild garlic. Listen to the songbirds from your window or garden as we come into the best month for hearing their tunes.

These are just a few ideas for a little home celebration and if now isn't the perfect excuse to have a little frivolous fun I don't know when is. I hope whatever you're doing you have a wonderful first day of May. 


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