Sunday 2 May 2021

Beltane - Or Not?

Cherry Blossom

Despite all my good intentions and determination to build a better 'normal', once again life got in the way of any Beltane celebrations this year. Although I am mostly only working a two-day week at the moment, this week was a busy one. We attended a funeral on Monday (one of my usual work days), and I worked Tuesday, Wednesday (in lieu of Monday and as holiday cover for a colleague), and Saturday. At the same time, IB had started a new job and had a training day on Tuesday and his first shifts Thursday and Saturday. As we're sharing a car between us, this caused some inconveniences such as arriving in Carmarthen two hours before I was due to start work one morning (pro-tip: take a good book). There was also a fair bit of sewing between work shifts to ensure IB's new uniforms fitted him! One afternoon I took groceries over to my elderly parents, and one evening family and friends got together via a Zoom call to celebrate my brother and sister-in-law's 21st Wedding Anniversary. 

With all this going on, it only occurred to me late one evening that the next day was Beltane, making me feel like a Very Bad Pagan Indeed. The next day we were going to have to be up super-early (IB's new job, car-sharing...) so I decided I might at least get the chance for a quick wander in the garden to wash my face in the Beltane dew before we left. Except, there was no dew. It was an unseasonably cold night and there was a sharp frost instead. I briefly wondered if the warmth of my hands would melt the frost into dew fit for face-washing, but my arthritic joints winced in horror at the very thought. So that was that.

Later on, back home after work I saw a friend had posted on Facebook that he really wasn't feeling that it was Beltane yet this year. Some people disagreed, but many were saying the same thing - and I realised I felt the same way too. It wasn't just the busy week leading up to Beltane that had sprung the festival on me - I'm not feeling it just yet. It could be to do with the unusually cold weather we're having at the moment. None of my seedlings in the vegetable patch have faired very well and I'm still too scared to plant out my tomato plants in the greenhouse because the nights are so cold. There's no hawthorn blossom in the hedges yet - and although it's often a bit late here at Halfway up a Hill, it's usually to be seen in abundance elsewhere by now. The cherry trees are blossoming abundantly (as always) but the apple blossom remains tightly budded for now. Worst of all, we don't yet have any swallows or martins. I saw my first swallows quite early this year, at my parents' house on 1st April (I usually expect them some time during the second week of April). Even though my parents only live less than 15 miles away, so far no swallows or martins have found their way to us. I have merely seen glimpses of a few at a time, passing through on their way to somewhere presumably a bit warmer. 

The date on the calendar may say it's Beltane then, but many of the seasonal signs are missing. So is it Beltane or not? I'm thinking yes - and no. There are a few different issues to be examined when it comes to determining the date of Beltane. The Solstices and Equinoxes are a much simpler matter, tied in as they are to the cycles of the sun. Although their exact dates vary slightly from year to year, they mark very precise moments in time that can be accurately predicted in advance. The sun is either at its maximum or minimum declination on the Solstices (marking the longest or shortest day), and the Equinoxes occur when the sun is positioned above the Equator and day and night are of equal length. The cross-quarterly festivals - Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain and Imbolc - are positioned roughly halfway between the Solstices and Equinoxes but are more concerned with the Earth's vegetation cycle. So it perhaps makes sense to judge their arrival from the cues given by the natural world. Snowdrops at Imbolc, hawthorn blossom at Beltane, the first grain harvest at Lughnasadh, the onset of winter at Samhain. It seems likely to me that in the days before clocks, calendars and electric light, people would have celebrated these festivals at the first full moon after they saw the cues given by nature. Everyone would have known which was the night of the full moon, and its light made gathering together easier. So in those days, I suspect Beltane would have been celebrated on the first full moon after the hawthorns began to blossom (or whatever the seasonal cue was for your part of the world). The advantage of this is keeping you sensitive to your environment and its changes. The obvious disadvantage is that seasonal signs can vary quite widely within a relatively small distance - the swallows having returned to my parents but not yet to me is a prime example. It also makes planning celebrations ahead of time much trickier than for the reliably predictable Solstices and Equinoxes.

This is where the invention of formalised calendars really simplifies things. We know from the archaeological records that our ancestors were carefully tracking the movements of the sun and moon, presumably in order to predict the cycles of the year. The creation of the Gregorian calendar that declares Beltane will occur on 30th April/1st May each year makes it far easier for covens, groves and other Pagan groups to plan their celebrations well ahead of time to ensure everyone who wants to attend can make suitable arrangements. Yet I can't help but feel sad about the way this severs us from the seasonal changes occurring around us.

Perhaps the best way - as is so often the case - is not  to commit ourselves to an either/or mindset, but to an 'and' way of thinking. It is Beltane both when the calendar says so - and also when the Earth declares it. The calendar Beltane allows us to plan community celebrations, wish each other a Happy Beltane on the same day and be in alignment with our fellow Pagans around the world (well, in the Northern hemisphere anyway - those in the Southern hemisphere will most likely be celebrating Samhain). And the Earth-based advent of Beltane allows us to be in communion with the Earth and to sense Her shifting energies in our very blood and bones.

I don't yet feel Beltane in my bones, in the pulse of the Earth - but I know it is on the way, just around the corner. The new leaves and the bluebells and wood anemones whisper of it. Soon swallows and hawthorn blossoms will confirm it and we will continue our headlong tumble into summer. Blessed Be.