An English Beltane Festival

An English Beltane Festival April 24, 2016

Morris Dancers perform in Rochester High Street. By author.

An English Matsuri?

Controversies aside, I am still deeply enamoured with Sweeps, and one of the reasons is that it reminds me very much of the nature of Shinto festivals in Japan. The Japanese love a good festival (or matsuri) and if you ever spend a fair amount of time there you will certainly get to experience one.

Religion is at the heart of every major matsuri in Japan – the word “matsuri” even derives from the verb meaning “to offer to the gods.” A matsuri is typically a special day of significance to a local Shinto shrine and its enshrined kami (deity). The kami will usually be represented by a portable mikoshi shrine, which is paraded through the town in a very lively and noisy manner. There will be ritual dancing (I have witnessed dances uncannily similar to Morris Dancing at some festivals – the dancers were even decorated with vegetation and bells!), offerings made to the kami, and other performances made in the kami’s honour.

Mikoshi shrines at a Japanese festival. By 大手k / Wikimedia Commons

But religion is only a part of Japanese festivals. A matsuri isn’t complete without its secular features. There will be a huge array of stalls selling food, toys and colourful costumes. Alcohol will be consumed in large quantities. Many people will see festivals as an occasion to show off their favourite yukata and kimono, but equally, followers of subcultures such as Gothic Lolita will use the festival as a chance to display their brilliant and outlandish fashions. There may be a pop/rock concert of some sort. And come nightfall, there will be vendors selling glowsticks and flashing accessories, and you’ll often get to see a spectacular fireworks display. All of these things, religious and secular, are seen as vital to the spirit of the matsuri.

It’s easy to see some the points in common between the Sweeps Festival and the Japanese matsuri. For Pagans, it is a time to honour the gods as an extension of Beltane. For those affiliated with particular subcultures, such as goths, hippies, and more recently, Steampunks, it’s an occasion to express themselves without fear of judgement. For local traders, it’s a fantastic boost to business. And for everyone, it’s a chance for escapism, revelry, and enjoying the company of others. If you are in the Rochester area over Beltane, make sure you drop by and join in!

References and Further Reading

Medway Council, Sweeps Festival 2016

Wikipedia, “Rochester, Kent

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