Sunday, 22 May 2016
I love Beltane, it's one of my favourite festivals. For one thing it's such a beautiful time of year here in the UK. For another, I like the way Beltane and Samhain balance and complement each other, doorways into Summer and Winter respectively. In years past, I would make a special effort to rise before sunrise on Beltane morning, going out into the pre-dawn darkness to experience the gradual lightening of the sky, the first tentative birdsong swelling into a glorious dawn chorus, the magical dew-soaked, mist-wreathed, blossom-scented break of day. As the sun rose I'd wash my face in the Beltane dew then cut some sprays of hawthorn (may) flowers and tie them to my front door with a red ribbon as a token of welcome to summer. And then, cold and dew-drenched and exhilarated I'd tiptoe back into the house and creep back into bed for a couple of hours more sleep before the alarm went off.
Later in the day I would do a ritual to celebrate Beltane. Sometimes alone - a simple blessing, or meditation or trip to the bluebell woods - and sometimes marking the occasion with fellow Pagans, dancing the maypole or leaping the bonfire or simply making merry.
This year, I did not get up early to greet the dawn and bring in the may. Nor did I meditate or dance or celebrate in any way. I noted the date and gave brief, regretful thought to the days when it wasn't totally impractical for me to get up before dawn to wander in wet grass listening to birdsong and picking flowers. A long, tiring week of work meant I just didn't have the energy to get up in the middle of the night. I needed all the sleep I could cram in. A local Pagan group invited me to their Beltane celebration, but I couldn't go as I was working. The Monday after Beltane was a Bank Holiday and we discussed the possibility of combining a working party (on a friend's garden) with a celebratory bonfire and combined garden/Beltane blessing but in the end it rained and my friend was ill, so those plans were abandoned too. And that was my 2016 Beltane.
I imagine it is that way for many of us. Life gets in the way, as we say. And paradoxically, that is not necessarily a bad thing. After all at Beltane, as the natural world is springing into the full fecund glory of summer what are we celebrating if not life? Yes, it would be lovely to celebrate with flowers and singing and rainbow-ribbon bedecked maypoles, but if that just isn't possible I don't think we should be beating ourselves up.
Celebrating the Wheel of the Year is important work, in the sense that it connects us to the changing world around us and keeps us in relation with the Earth and the web of life around us. And yet that can be done in a million tiny ways, as well as observing the eight big festivals of the Pagan Year. I celebrate this time of year by rejoicing at the returning swallows, sniffing the faery-scent of bluebells, wearing my favourite summer dress for the first time of the year, loving the sight of mayflowers in the hedgerow and apple-blossom in the orchard, eating fresh locally-grown asparagus... Mindfulness is the key. Any of these things becomes special, sacred, celebratory when it is done mindfully. Even work, household chores, family obligations can be re-framed this way. We work because we need the money to feed, house, clothe ourselves. In so doing we are exercising self-care, honouring our own lives and those of our dependants. Household chores keep our living spaces clean, pleasant, sustainable, marking our place in the world and how we choose to live in it. Family obligations - be they childcare, elder care or simply cooking the evening meal for those who share our lives - are the glue of community that holds us in relationship with our ancestors and descendants, small yet immensely important acts of love and care for our loved ones. Sacred work indeed.
Nor do I believe that our deities would judge us for missing out on celebrating festivals when we are overwhelmed by our other commitments. They know even better than us of our frailties and struggles. A tiny murmured prayer before falling into exhausted sleep is as valid as a big, elaborate ritual when that is all that your time and energy levels will allow. What matters is that you are giving to the best of your ability at the time. As long as we treat our deities with respect and love, I do not believe we incur their wrath or disappointment.
Perhaps next year, my circumstances will allow me to mark Beltane with a ritual. Perhaps not. But even if I am over-committed and exhausted next year too, I will still note the date and the turning of the Wheel. I will still watch the swallows and feel joy, observe the beauty of the bluebells and mayflowers and apple-blossom, enjoy the sensation of sun on my bare arms, and rejoice in the return of summer. When 'life gets in the way', don't use that fact to beat yourself up. Celebrate instead that you have a life, that you are here and now in this beautiful world experiencing it and all its unpredictable and messy entanglements. Experience life mindfully and it becomes a celebration of itself.