Druid Thoughts: Beltain Without Ritual

Beltain has been and gone. I didn’t celebrate this year in any obvious sense. I’m finding the seasons hard to get to grips with at the moment. In February it was hot enough, in the south west of England, for me to get sunburn. Then we had rain. I’ve always associated Beltain with the coming of bluebells and May blossom on the hawthorn. The bluebells were out weeks ago and the May hasn’t shown up yet. In previous years they’ve been much closer.

Climates have always changed. In Celtic times the UK was warm enough for the Romans to grow grapes here. And, I assume, warm enough for floating about in the required togas, which do not suggest warmth! In Henry the Eighth’s time we had what some refer to as a mini ice age. The River Thames froze so solidly that people managed to roast an ox on it! The weather patterns shift, that’s part of nature.

When it comes to the wheel of the year used by Wiccans, druids and often other pagans too, this creates some interesting questions. How important are the calendar dates? We know the calendars have changed, nothing quite falls when it used to. The dates themselves have lots of cultural baggage, with May the first becoming Labour Day, and Samhain becoming Halloween. The history of those dates is something to consider when pondering whether, or how to honour them.

The solar dates are easy enough because they represent a definite phenomena. Longest day, shortest day, balance days. So long as the earth and the sun stay in the same relationship, this will be fine. I think if there was a physical change, we’d be led by that to move away from the previously accepted dates.

I think of the other four, sometimes called ‘fire festivals’ or ‘cross quarter festivals’ as being inherently seasonal. They mark transition times in the year, or at least, historical ones. But most of us now are not farmers. Our food comes from all over the world, from every season. Our local seasons may not match festival dates derived from the UK. In the southern hemisphere it makes far more sense to be celebrating Samhain now, and Beltain in October, to match the seasons.

Yesterday was not the beginning of summer. The hawthorn is not in bloom. I felt no drive to do anything specific. I feel ever more strongly moved to try and get to grips with the seasons as they are, and the key points in my own life, as I live it. A one size fits all wheel of the year doesn’t make any sense. I feel sure our ancestors would have celebrated what was immediately relevant to them. But what would that give us? Shall we celebrate the turning of the tax year? How about a bit of maypole dancing to honour the success of the human resources department this month? We could light a fire in honour of our government, or maybe bun a few effigies.

The whole fabric of modern life is radically different from the way our ancestors lived. The more I think about it, the more strongly I feel that being pagan has to mean more than a focus on a few festivals. It has to mean living a whole life that is resonant and that makes sense. If what we do in the day job could not be meaningfully celebrated in circle, there are questions to ask about why we did it in the first place.

About Nimue Brown

Druid blogger, author of Druidry and Meditation, Druidry and the Ancestors and Spirituality without structure (Moon Books) Intelligent Designing for Amateurs (Top Hat Books) and Hopeless Maine (Archaia). Book reviewer for the Druid Network and Pagan Dawn. Volunteer for OBOD. Green, folky, Steampunk wench with a coffee habit. www.druidlife.wordpress.com and www.hopelessmaine.com @Nimue_B and can be hunted down on facebook.

  • sunfell

    I feel the same way. All the trees blossomed in February, and it was summer before it was spring. Things are all wonky in the natural world. But I am not sure that I would want to have a festival celebrating primary election season, or the quadriennal computer swap-out, or the biennial Legislative Session, either. Yet, these are the tides of my life and work. So is the late winter premiere of electronic dance music tracks that will dominate the summer.

    H’m. That last might actually be worth a gathering. Help me with this subwoofer, willya? 

  • http://twitter.com/TriniPagan KS Lewis

    This has been an issue I have been struggling with for most of my days as a  Wiccan-then-Pagan, given that I live in the tropics. Here we have two seasons: dry and wet.  But I always had the impression that these seasonal sabbats were so ingrained in one’s practice as a Wiccan/Witch that my lack of connection with it was always accompanied with great guilt.
    So I thank you for verbalizing this concept so beautifully . :) 

  • Henry

    I think as you write, part of the disconnect is in thinking about the cross quarters in terms of calendar dates. There’s also the idea of it being thought necessary to celebrate each and every one, even if they don’t align with locale and climate. Though many view them as celebrating the turning of the wheel, there’s also another way to look at the rituals as helping to turn the wheel, more or less invoking the coming season, rather than just celebrating its inception.
    The phenomena related to the cross quarters aren’t any where near the regularity of the solstices and equinoxes, and the weather and climate on those days can be just as fickle in regards to the season they are said to initiate.
    I can relate to what you express as some years the feeling of the cross quarters don’t correspond with the standard date, so they are not confined to such. They can be more thought of as tides or seasons within the standard seasons. we’ve celebrated Beltane from anywhere between the middle of april to the middle of may. for us it’s always been a matter of ‘feel’, the earth lets us know.

  • kenneth

    If to attribute too much power to their literal connection with climate and obsolete planting and agriculture caledars, then yes, things like Beltane seem trite and irrevevant. But try to give them a serious shot if you can. Youll be amazed and surprised by how much power and meaning they do convey even in just a watered down metaphysical sense. I know the whole business seems silly and anachronistic taken at face value, but don’t cheat yourself of the really good communal ritual that these things offer. 

     Mostly none of us are in fact asperging our cattle with nine-woods smoke or making the fields fertile for what we will eat from them. But it reconnectus us with those cycles and gives us a metaphorical connection for the many thins we do need to renew, and plant and turn out to pasture, as it were. There are spirits of the land in whatever place you do this work, and the humans in company often reconnect even for a little while with the simple joy of experiencing the joy of spring almost as little kids again. Playing at the old Beltaine customs is not ALL our religions are about, but they’re a beautiful way for us to plant their feet in the ancient’s world, even just for a little while, and know the wonder and simply happiness they knew. 

  • Nightfire

    Great article and i enjoyed the comments as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=629481545 Suzanne Hill Thackston

    i dunno. i think there’s an etiological component to the sabbats, but that’s not ALL they are (to me.) there’s a ritual connection to ancestors, and the offering of ongoing worship to my gods in forms that have been Theirs for millenia. i like to keep to the sabbats as beloved anchors in a shifting sea of modernity. and if nothing else, they remind me how much better i feel if i eat locally and seasonally, and those are the fruits and flowers i offer my gods at those festivals too.

  • http://twitter.com/StringDruid Lisa Gorski

    I agree.  I’ve spoken with other Pagans about this.  My path as a Druid is to relate to the Earth as I experience it around me.  I am not a Druid in ancient Celtic Ireland.  I’m a Druid in modern day Northern California.  I work the Earth in my garden, and I make a point to grow plants native to this region.  I pay attention to the wildlife that lives here, and I try to live my life in balance with my area, and the nature around me.  I am a part of this place in the Universe.

    I’m not big on rituals in general.  I mark the solstices and equinoxes as the Earth tilts and its relationship with the Sun is affected.  The other times–if I feel it, I mark it.