The First of May

Just read a brief post on Patheos called Beltain Without Ritual, where the author describes how they let this major pagan festival pass without celebration because they couldn’t reconcile the concepts associated with it to the physical reality of the climate at the moment. In other words, it was too rainy and cold to feel like it.

Now, they do bring up some important issues about whether or not it makes sense to celebrate the Northern European wheel-of-the-year type festivals (or at least, on their traditional dates) in differing climates or time periods (they live in England, but the weather has changed over the centuries). As I’ve said many times, I firmly believe in rooting even reconstructionist traditions in one’s local environment, which may necessitate some changes. But… there were a couple of problematic concepts in the post that I feel like addressing.

“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.”

It’s hard for me to grasp this kind of attitude coming from a pagan, but I see it all the time. You know, your food doesn’t have to come from all over the world.  It’s called eating locally and seasonally. You don’t have to be 100% locavore to make some significant changes in your eating habits. And not only will this lower your carbon footprint and be healthier, but it has the added benefit of helping you feel more in touch with the agricultural cycles of the place you live in. In other words, you don’t have to be a farmer to be tuned in to those seasonal transitions, especially if you make a little effort. I can tell you that this time of year means a lot more when you’re looking forward to the first fresh asparagus and strawberries of the season, and haven’t been eating crappy versions of those from faraway lands all through the winter. It will also remind you that agriculture is, still, “immediately relevant” to all of us, and does not need to be substituted (as the author suggests) with things that seem more important to modern sensibilities.

“Yesterday was not the beginning of summer. The hawthorn is not in bloom. I felt no drive to do anything specific.”

There are two things wrong with this, to my mind. One is this idea that it’s okay not to do anything for a festival simply because you don’t feel like it. You probably all know how I feel about that. Even if there are not specific gods being honored, to whom you have obligations. These festivals have traditionally been filled with ritual acts that are meant to effect a kind of primal magic that encourages the natural world to run smoothly (and usually, to the benefit of humans, such as crops growing well). I guess if you don’t really believe in any of that stuff, it doesn’t matter if you do it or not. But then, I don’t know why you’d be a pagan in those circumstances. Otherwise, doing the acts – even when you’re not in the mood – is meaningful in itself. Not to mention the fact that often just doing it will create the mood you were lacking in the first place.

But there’s another thing, and it’s something I’m guilty of myself too often, and have been trying to identify and correct more quickly lately. Because I too woke up on May Day morning feeling a bit blah. It was rainy, and cold, and had been for some time, and it didn’t feel much like a day for Maypoles and strawberry wine and flowers in my hair and all of that. So, instead of trying to force a mood based on what is “supposed” to be happening in the natural world at this time of year, I opened myself up to what was happening. The rain may have been a bit depressing but it was certainly encouraging my herb garden to grow, so I made my May crown out of oregano and lemon balm and sage this time. I dressed for the weather rather than wearing a frilly dress that would only get soaked. I enjoyed the numinous feeling of the morning mist, even if I would have preferred sunshine. And as I walked several miles to my special heartwoods (where I decorated a little glade with ribbons and flowers and made my offerings), I did my best to be present and attentive to the flora and fauna as they were right that moment, on the verge of spring, even if that spring seems somewhat delayed this year. And that put me in touch with the rhythms of the land and the spirits, which was exactly what I needed. This is real practice as opposed to a fantasy or imagination or longing – it doesn’t always go as planned, it’s not always like it “should” be, but it’s infinitely more satisfying if you really throw yourself into it.

By the way, this year I started what’s likely to be a new tradition for me. I’d always had some kind of “May wine” for Beltane, usually just like a punch made with champagne. The last couple years, I wanted to get more authentic so I started growing my own waldmeister (sweet woodruff), the traditional German ingredient of May wine. This year, I happened to try an experiment on the spring equinox, making a sort of mead-like beverage with maple syrup as a base instead of honey (they call it “maple beer” in the book I have, but it’s really more like sparkling wine), which I thought was appropriate for spring since that’s when the maple trees are tapped. It finishes quickly, and was ready in just a few weeks, but I saved a bottle of it until May Day because I suspected it would work well with the waldmeister and strawberries, and in fact it did. So from now on I will have May wine I have made myself! Those little touches make the holidays so much more special for me.

(On a side note, today is Alice Day – we stretch it into several days – so you all know what we’ll be doing this weekend. Anyone else up for a trip down the rabbit hole?)

~ by Dver on May 4, 2012.

18 Responses to “The First of May”

  1. love this post, thank you : ) Can you share the recipe for your May wine?This year is the first time I’ve observed Beltane, and it was in amidst the workings of my busy day – a small alter – a traditional dish for dinner, flowers on the table – but the point was I think, that I was mindful all day that it was a sacred day and a day for positive thoughts, and I talked about the day all day as well – the traditions of the day, why people eat certain things, the old fertility writes etc. I was pleased and surprised that the next day, I felt like Christmas had just passed. This let me know I’d done something right.

    • Do you mean the recipe for making the maple ‘mead’ itself, or just the May Wine part? I have the former written down somewhere, I think/hope, but as for May Wine, I just add about 7 sprigs of sweet woodruff (fresh, not dried, with the flowers) to a bottle of wine, soak it overnight, then take out the leaves and flowers and add some cut up strawberries. Simple as that. I find that sparkling white wine is a good base. The trick is just finding the woodruff – but around here at least the plant starts are available in very early spring at several nurseries, and once you plant it, it will try to take over your garden so you’ll never run out!

  2. i so agree about doing something for the festivals, whether you feel it or not. that being said, i’m often guilty of being too overwhelmed to do more than a prayer and libation. but you inspire me to be a better worshipper!
    heh. and once again i’m just too frickin’ busy on alice days to have another mad hatter party, although i LOVED the one i did a couple of years ago. however, alice and i will be having a small party under the full moon each night of alice days this weekend. just she and i.🙂 khairete

  3. [quote]These festivals have traditionally been filled with ritual acts that are meant to effect a kind of primal magic that encourages the natural world to run smoothly [/quote].

    I think many pagans, including myself, sometimes seem to forget we are not just here to observe and celebrate the workings of nature, but also to participate in them. And in this way, we reinforce the division between man and natural world in a sense. We seem to have to some trouble to believe we really can make a difference. Because if we belief we are powerless, there is no reason to assume responsibility.

    The same thing goes for the responsibility to buy locally. I cannot say I always do so. But to say, well, our products come from all over the world and there is nothing we can do about it, that makes it easier to ignore the changes you yourself can make. There are things we can only do as a community/society but to say that everything is as its is and cannot be otherwise smacks of cynicism. On my part, I am rather sick of cynicism, I have been part of it too long.

    I just want to add one more thing, something unrelated to this post. Last week I found Persephone’s presence in my local landscape, in a place I call Goose Playgroud. So far I found it much easier to relate to Her undergroundness, but this time I knew she would like the playfulness of this place (meadows on a local river bank) immensely. I left offering and felt there were accepted by the local spirits. In winter time, the place actually feels very stern, and it reminds me of Persephone’s dual aspects. I could not have recognised this without your blog. you have my gratitude.

    • Thank you for the great comments, and I’m especially excited about that last part regarding Persephone – love to hear how this is unfolding for you!

      • I asked Sannion to lay my question before Dionysus. And He confirmed I am on the right track even if I am not exactly correct about Persephone’s whereabouts sometimes. Do you know if Persephone has any historical connections to hot springs or other forms of subterranean waters?

        • Well, I know Haides was associated with hot springs, so that’s close. Frazer says that Herakles told people in Syracuse to sacrifice a bull to Persephone at one of the hot springs there. And personally, I’ve been associating Her with them for awhile now, as I’ve grown to know volcanic Dionysos more intimately, and She is after all one of His mothers. I actually have a piece of rock from a hot spring on Her shrine, because I naturally made the connection. Whether or not it was a significant aspect in ancient times, I think the ancients would have understood the connection.

  4. Very, VERY good read, thank you. I’m in Australia, so I’m kind of stuck hanging between the seasonal autumnalness here and the pull of my deities who happen to hang out in the northern hemisphere where it is spring now. (As it happens, the only ritual I ended up doing on the first of May was one to ensure my son would come through surgery ok the next day.) It is interesting, to say the least, trying to balance and reconcile the differing pulls I feel, without giving it up as all too hard. And I think that is where some people may go wrong. Being unsure of what they’re ‘meant’ to do, tying themselves in knots and therefore doing nothing at all. I’ve heard said, and I don’t remember where, that doing something, even if it ends up being wrong, is better than doing nothing at all.

  5. A resounding YES to everything in this post. Especially the part about eating locally, which is a big deal here in Whatcom county. And I always enjoy when you write about your personal traditions. I know Sannion is the unofficial Pagan Pope, but can we make you the Pagan Papess? You could rule jointly . . .?

    As for Alice Day, i am listening to the divine Grace Slick singing “White Rabbit” right now😉

  6. But then, I don’t know why you’d be a pagan in those circumstances

    I don’t understand why someone wold identify as *Pagan* and not care about food as it is about as basic in our relationship to earth and the web of life as it gets. I am so surprised by the number of pagans who patronize fast food establishments. I can understand people might have emergencies but. to not make an effort, well, I just don’t get it..

    Anyway, a great post on many levels. Opening to what is there is so important!

    • I am so surprised by the number of pagans who patronize fast food establishments.

      Me too, I notice that all the time. If you can’t afford all organic and free range meat and all, I can understand that, but almost anything’s better than eating that junk (on so many levels – health, environment, animal treatment, social issues, etc.). And if your values don’t extend to something as basic and everyday as what nourishes you, then they are not yet very embedded in your life.

  7. I’ve been personally struggling with this topic. I’d normally celebrate May day but i dont feel it would be right considering my circumstances. I’ve been living abroad in country which only has two seasons. Is it meaningful to celebrate the coming of spring when it’s always summer here? The European wheel does not fit in a place where the people here have only seen snow in movies.

    Not to mention, if I was seen practicing, it could easily lead to my death.

    I’m just attempting to connect the land here. However, any ritual seems superficial.

    • “However, any ritual seems superficial”

      Why not invent your own then? The religious festivals are about more than just seasonal change are they not?

  8. A great post – thank you. I can tell you from direct experience, that the Elementals and Devas definately miss our attention if we skip or forget parts of rituals to which they are accustomed. One Beltane I forgot to bring out the cream offering to the Fae of our circle. As we processed back in following ritual, the chalice leaped from the celebrant’s hands and smashed on the rocks. We were all a bit taken aback at what had happened. Then we got back into the house and saw the Faerie cream still on the table. Clearly they were pissed that they had been forgotten. I brought it out to them and apologised. We Pagans need to remember that our rituals are not “all about us” – they affect the sacred landscape.

  9. Great post! I couldn’t agree more.

    I live in the desert so traditional European seasonal festivals don’t always work. BUT oftentimes they do, especially if you’re open to paying attention to the landscape speaking to you with a different set of symbols. This year, among other things, I took note of how the saguaros are blooming around Beltane. If I were to do a Beltane ritual in the future, I would probably incorporate them somehow. Dancing around erect and prick-ly saguaros… Fertility symbol? Yeah!

    Ahh, I am sad I didn’t get to celebrate Alice Day this year (do to my sister’s wedding rehearsal and wedding during that weekend). Last year we went all out had a wonderful time. So I’m going to plan on doing a Looking Glass Day in November instead this year!

    • Dancing around erect and prick-ly saguaros… Fertility symbol? Yeah!

      LOL. That’s kind of perfect, actually.

      So happy to see the idea of Alice Day spreading! I used to do a November 4 party too, though these days once a year is enough since I put so much into it. Have a great time!

  10. I posted a response there. Modern pagans are very disconnected to the land for the most part. For me the quarterdays are of the sky, the cross quarters of the earth. The land tells me when it’s beltane, or samhain, etc. One can feel the rising tide under the land, can see it in the stirrings of green things, and those of the fur,feather and fin…

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