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?)