Beltane 2010 - Why We Celebrate
Wiccans along with most other NeoPagans celebrate the sacredness of all natural cycles. These cycles are particularly clear within regions with four distinct seasons, and I think it is natural that we, whose origins most recently hail from the British Isles, emphasize the ever changing and eternal seasons to concretely symbolize the most basic of these cycles. We have eight Sabbats, four synchronized with the solar cycle of Solstices and Equinoxes, and four linked to the old Celtic agricultural cycle. These last four are generally the more important, I think because the cycles of birth, life, and death are at their most concrete.
Of these four days, two are particularly important: Beltane and Samhain. Samhain honors the powers of death, as Beltane honors those of life. For these are the two biggest themes in all embodied existence. Without life, the rest of embodiment is irrelevant, and everything that lives also dies. As one joker told me, "Life is a sexually transmitted terminal condition."
And that is why Beltane, which most unreservedly and exuberantly focuses on life, also most unreservedly and exuberantly focuses on sexuality.
In most of the temperate world Spring is far along by now. In most places Beltane fittingly marks Spring's transition to summer. The sexual energy of spring is flowing into the generative abundance of summer. I think of Beltane as a celebration of beauty and delight for its own sake.
Flowers, the sexual organs of plants, are blooming abundantly, soon to set seeds. Birds are building their nests. Throughout the world the energies of reproduction, of sexuality, are at their most visible. It is through sex that we come into physical existence, and sexuality enables us to connect most intimately with the powers of life and with one another. It inspires the greatest beauty in the biological world, from flowers to plumage to the celebration of beauty among us two leggeds. The custom of having a May Queen is an acknowledgement of this, and it is fitting that it emphasizes physical beauty and vitality. (There are other Sabbats where we celebrate balance, wisdom, and the other forms beauty can take.)
Beltane begins at sundown, April 30, and extends until sundown May 1. Those fortunate enough to be able to meet outside in the country will often have bonfires on the 30th, which young couples can jump through, celebrating their hopes for love and perhaps fertility. That night, weather permitting, many will sleep outside, and fertility will have another chance to manifest. In this day and age many of us honor fertility in all its forms, there now being quite enough of the human kind.
Covens will meet with friends to celebrate the time, often with small fires safe for a living room as a symbol and reminder of the big ones we'd like to have. Often our rituals will honor the symbolic wedding of the Goddess and the God, or the revival of the Oak King, to reside until Samhain. The rituals will often be followed by a feast.
Before dawn many of us will be up, myself among them, to watch and applaud Morris Dancers who symbolically dance up the summer sun. The first time I experienced this wonderful ritual there seemed something deeply primordial and right about it. A couple hundred of us had arisen long before dawn to be at Inspiration Point in Berkeley. Today, many years later, Morris Dancers are far more widespread than they were over 20 years ago, and these dawn celebrations are far more common. Here in Sonoma County, Sebastopol's Apple Tree Morris Dancers now perform the same ritual. They are very good, but this year I'll be down south with old friends.
Those of us who are hard core even come out in the pouring rain. I will never forget one May morning, joining perhaps a hundred other of the really hard core huddled under umbrellas, watching the dancers as the light slowly grew until a watch told us the sun had actually made its way above the horizon.
Afterwards, in Berkeley, many of us repair to a Pagan's house, a generous soul who lays out a wonderful brunch to begin the rest of the day. More of us than normal will be able to do it this year because it's a weekend. I have no idea how widespread this particular custom has become, but it's a wonderful one, whether as a gift to the community and offering to the Gods, or as a pot luck.
As the day progresses public Sabbats will sprout all over our country, in parks and other large open spaces. This year some will be on Saturday, others on Sunday. It's a chance to be deeply immersed in sacred time for long time for those who wish. May Poles will rise, whether as magickal centers of intention or simply as fun. In Berkeley NROOGD will give a public celebration with its "Obby Hoss," a old British tradition that, along with being a lot of fun to watch, is said to bring fertility to any woman who gets caught under its cloak. I know it works. Here are some pictures from last year's festivities.
We celebrate Beltane because it is fun, because it honors the sacred dimension of fun, because it celebrates life and love, because it more than any other honors the gift of life and the blessings of delight.