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Winding the may pole

I wrote this five years ago for our local weekly paper, The Arcata Eye. At the time I was writing a weekly herb column.

In the spirit of May, and in celebration of Beltane I thought I’d post it (in a somewhat edited version) here.

Ah, the merry month of May. This most beautiful of months is ushered in by the cross quarter day known to Pagans as Beltane. Most people know this day as “May Day,” and a few still refer to it by its medieval name, Walpurgis.

For me, May evokes images of wild roses in bloom, grasses and flowers waving in the fragrant spring breezes, and luscious red ripe strawberries. The light is long and lingering and fields lay freshly planted, the future crops of summer still tender and delicate.

Beltane means “fire of Bel” or “bright fire” – the “bale-fire.” Bel or Beli was a Celtic Sun God, known as the bright and shinning one. Bel is the father, protector, and the husband of the Mother Goddess. The Beltane festivities celebrated the sacred marriage between the god and the goddess. They welcomed the return of vitality, of passion

For the ancient Celts of the British Isles, the Beltane Festival was a festival of rapturous gaiety as it joyfully heralded the arrival of summer in her full garb. Fires were an important part of the festivities, giant ritual blazes were built to insure that the warmth of the Sun’s light would continue to promote the fecundity of the earth.

Some of us remember filling baskets with fresh flowers and leaving them on the neighbors’ door on the first day of May, or of dancing around a maypole adorned with brightly colored ribbons. These are ancient traditions of the Beltane holiday that have carried on to this day. The spirit of Beltane can be conveyed by a child’s unrestrained expression of bliss. It is the sheer joy of running through fields, picking flowers, swallowing the sunlight, delighting in the fragrance of spring, dancing in the fresh dew covered grass.

I have fond childhood memories of this magical month. I remember preparing, with my Catholic School class, for the May procession to honor and celebrate the Virgin Mary. We would march through a gravel grotto adjacent to the school, carrying fresh flowers, and set a crown of blossoms on the statue of Mary.

Perhaps the Catholic Church made Mary the Queen of May as a way of promoting chastity rather than the sexuality of earlier goddesses associated with May, such as Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. Her festival, the Floralia, was celebrated from April 28 through May 6 in Rome – with lewd games, striptease, scattering of peas and lentils, and letting loose hares and goats. But it’s equally possible that since May was always considered the woman’s month, a time of blossom and fruition, that Mary was simply the best Catholic emblem of that.

Spring roses

Although, modern celebrations of May Day usually occur on May 1, in olden times Beltane began at sundown on April 30. Since it was a celebration of the earth’s fertility and the sacred marriage, it was a festival of sensuality and delight. Lore has it that as darkness fell on Eve, couples would slip away from the fire to spend the night together in the surrounding woods. Older married couples were allowed to remove their wedding rings for this one night. They would emerge in the dawn light, rumpled but happy, and bathe their faces in the first morning dew of May. Women would braid flowers into their hair. Men and women alike would decorate their bodies to ready themselves for the dance around the maypole and to continue with the Beltane revelry.

The phallic maypole symbolized the interweaving of the male and female energies to bring fertility to all unions. The pole was draped with ribbons and flowers, and the traditional circular dance alternated male and female dancers, weaving in and out in a maze movement, plaiting ribbons as they go. The dance became a spiral with the men moving clockwise and the women moving counter-clockwise in a rehearsed movement. In the end the ribbons wound tightly around the pole in a latticed pattern, and it was though that the better the pattern, the better the harvest would be that fall.

The weaving begins

This maypole tradition has fallen in and out of favor over the years. As it was frowned on by the puritans, it is much less popular in the U.S. than it is in Britain and Europe. But children love this ancient dance, and it is easy to put together for a May celebration. Many modern pagans celebrate Beltane with a maypole dance, and honor the sacred marriage and the earth’s fertility with reveling, feasting and ritual.

This period between May 1 and summer solstice, and especially Beltane itself, has always been considered a time when it is easiest to spy the fairies frolicking in the woodlands and garden. It was common practice to leave food or a bowl of milk as an offering for the fairies on Beltane Eve. The old stories tell of the Queen of the Fairies who rides out on a snow-white horse on this evening, looking for mortals to lure away to Fairyland for seven years. If you sit beneath a tree on this night, you will see her or hear the sound of her horse’s bells as she rides by. If you hide your face, she will pass you by but if you look at her, she may choose you.

You can celebrate the magic of Beltane by bringing green branches and fresh flowers into your home. If you can, go for a walk in the night on April 30th, breathe in the delicate scent of the spring, and listen for the bells that herald the approach of the Fairy Queen. Wake up early on the first of May and bathe your face in the fresh morning dew, and then if you want, run around leaving May baskets of flowers on doorsteps.

It’s May! The wild roses unfurl in a mass of pink profusion and foxgloves wave their spotted bells in celebration. Be gentle! Be joyous! For as the month of May unravels with it’s breezy, warm days and long sweet-smelling twilight, it heralds the beginning of summer’s delights.