Growing up in the midwest, with the nearest beach 1000 miles away in the closest direction, I had a very narrow concept of what a beach was like. Warm, sunny, sandy boundaries between surf & city, beautiful people in sparse swimsuits, with the entertainment capital of the world a stone’s throw away, dominated my mind when I thought of beaches. Little did I know that years later, I would move to Maine and discover that a beach during a winter storm is one of the most beautiful natural spectacles I would ever witness.
The Maine climate is different from the traditional Celtic Wheel Of The Year. For that European climate, Beltane is the mid-point of Spring, where the crops are already in the ground and the fields need to be fertilized. In Maine, when I was out today I saw some still-lingering piles of snow that have yet to melt. The mud is just now beginning to subside, and we’ve even hit 70°F once or twice so far. Not many crops have been planted outside of greenhouses, as the risk for the night frosts is still too great.
On the beach, you won’t see many bikinis this time of year, and even fewer people swimming in the ocean. A few brave souls find a cold dip into the lower-40° waves to be refreshing, but we never linger too long, and must make sure we have a drying & warming strategy as soon as we emerge from the cold water. A far cry, in short, from the cultural beach icons of southern California and Florida.
Beltane On The Beach is certainly the longest-running Pagan gathering in Maine, and at 33 years of continuous existence, its current organizers claim it to be “the oldest continuously running pagan gathering in North America.” I had the pleasure of speaking with original event founders Fred & Leigh Griffith about the origin and history of this enduring Maine Pagan tradition they began all those years ago.
I asked Fred about the beginning of this tradition: “The very first Beltane on the Beach was celebrated at Popham Beach in 1982 by five adults and two children. When we started coming to Popham Beach, the park was not yet open for the year. We had to park out by the road and carry everything in. Sometimes we would put everything into buckets and bags and hang them from the maypole, which was then carried by two or three of us on our shoulders. Back then there were no barbeque pits but we were able to collect enough driftwood to build a small fire in the wet sand. The following year we had more people attending, mostly Pagan friends we had from out of state. In those days we had no way to network or find other Pagans in the state. The only reason we had five of us the first year was because someone in our town asked about our Lammas sign when we hung it to let folks know where our Lammas celebration would be held.”
The gathering continued the next year, and the year after that. More and more people came each year — with a few exceptions in years where the weather was less favorable to large celebratory gatherings: “I forget which year, but sometimes in the mid 1990’s we had to expand to two maypoles because we had too many people to comfortably do just one pole. Before we expanded to two maypoles, we celebrated out on the island during low tide. As we began to get older, however, we found that it was too difficult for some of us to get across the sand and to the rocks.” Fox Island is just a few hundred yards off the coast of the main beach, and is accessible by foot during low tide. So one must plan the celebrations carefully so as not to get stranded during high tide.
In addition, the southern boundary of the beach is marked by the Morse River that flows out to the Atlantic Ocean. A few years ago, during a powerful storm the river changed course and washed away much of the beach. That year’s Beltane On The Beach attendees didn’t have much difficulty appreciating the power of nature after that.
A Maine Marker for Spring
This time of year, the southern part of Maine looks different from the northern part, which often is still under snow even as late as Beltane. For those traveling from the northern parts of the state, coming south to Popham was often the first taste of spring.
And for those coming to Beltane On The Beach from outside of Maine, or away from the coastal areas of Maine, the drive in is a good reminder of the legacy of the Maine coast. As Fred noted, “Even the drive to and from Popham Beach is a good time. We usually take the back road instead of the highway. Although the highway twists and turns some, it is no where near as scenic and interesting as the back road. The back road snakes down through houses built by old sea captains and lobstermen. It passes small cliffs that are right next to the road, passes through a beautiful wooded swale, and along the tidal marshes before it hits the highway again.”
Despite the beauty of Popham Beach, Beltane On The Beach is at its core about the Pagan community in Maine. Over the years there have been countless weddings, handfastings, initiations, rights of passage, and other rituals to be witnessed by the community, in addition to the Beltane traditions of the Maypole Dancing. There is an annual Blessing of the Bikes, bestowed “upon all riders and their rides, asking the Gods to keep us all safe and dry during the coming riding season.”
There will also be a Druidic Gorsedd (“a coming together of modern-day bards”), an annual Torch Race to honor the most “Fleet of Foot & Beloved of Pan,” as well as a Red Tent & A Blue Tent where men & women can spend some time sharing experiences, stories, mysteries of gender, and ritual.
Historically, Leigh noted, Beltane On The Beach has been “a place where like minds can meet and enjoy each others’ company and share thoughts and practices without having the exact same niche as everyone else.” Over the past 33 years the Pagan community has evolved, grown, and become less veiled from the public.
This year’s Beltane on the Beach will be Sunday, May 3rd, so if you are within a few hundred miles, you should come celebrate with the community.