Rites of Spring

1 May

In the words of Emily Dickinson: “A little madness in the spring be wholesome even for the king” and, indeed, all over the world this season seems to be perpetually associated with madness, magic and mysticism. In the western world, spring is associated with two festivals in particular: May Day and Beltane. Traditionally an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations, the pagan festival of May Day lost its religious character when much of Europe became Christianized. However, it still remained a national holiday in many countries and in the 20th and 21st centuries many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival again. Also revived in recent years was the Celtic festival of Beltane (or ‘Bel’s fire’, named in honour of the deity Belenus), when fires were lit to signal the beginning of summer. However, spring festivals are by no means limited to Europe – in India the season sees the celebration of the raucous festival of colours known as Holi; Akitu was the spring festival in ancient Mesopotamia; and in Vietnam the celebration of Tet in February marks both the New Year and the beginning of spring. After a winter that (at least on this side of the pond) seems to have gone on forever, now seems the perfect time to celebrate the rites of spring.


May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. In Britain, traditional May Day rites and celebrations include morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and anything involving a Maypole. Much of this derives from traditional Anglo-Saxon customs associated with Thrimilch (literally ‘the month of three milkings’) – the Old English term for the month of May. In the years since then, May Day has become most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings, although the particular traditions tend to vary from region to region. Whitstable in Kent, for example, hosts annual Jack in the Green pageants, in which a procession of morris dancers parade through the town on the May Day bank holiday. Padstow in Cornwall, meanwhile,  holds its annual ‘Obby-Oss’ (Hobby Horse) day of festivities. This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK, during which the whole town is decorated with springtime greenery, and every year thousands of onlookers attend. Revellers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town and even through the private gardens of the citizens, accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes who sing the traditional ‘May Day’ song. The university cities of Oxford, Durham and Edinburgh annually see students take to the streets in their hundreds in the early hours of May morning to see the sunrise and enjoy festivities including folk music, dancing, madrigal singing and a barbecue breakfast (although as students, let’s face it, they don’t need much of an excuse to party!).

Edinburgh is also the setting for an ancient Fire Festival that is held on the evening of May eve and into the early hours of May Day on the city’s Calton Hill. An older Edinburgh tradition has it that young women who climb Arthur’s Seat and wash their faces in the morning dew will have lifelong beauty. Celebrated on 1 May – and thus linked inextricably with May Day – Beltane is a spring-time festival of optimism. Fertility ritual again was important, in part perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun, symbolized by the lighting of fires through which livestock were driven, and around which the people danced in a sunwise direction. In Ireland, where the festival survived in its original form for longer than in most places, bonfires were lit to safeguard against disease and Druids used to make them with great incantations, amid solemn ceremony. The fires would mark a time of purification and transition, ringing in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, and were accompanied with ritual acts to protect the people from any harm by Otherworldly spirits. Like the festival of Samhain, opposite Beltane on 31 October, Beltane was also a time when the Otherworld was seen as particularly close at hand. Beltane was equally popular in the Scottish Highlands, where young people met on the moors, lit a bonfire and made an oatmeal cake toasted at the embers. The cake was cut and one of the pieces marked with charcoal. Drawing the pieces blindfolded, whoever got the marked piece would have to leap over the flames three times. Another common aspect of the festival, practiced far beyond the shores of Britain and Ireland in the New World of North America, was the hanging of May Boughs on the doors and windows of houses and the making of May Bushes in farmyards, which usually consisted either of a branch of rowan/mountain ash or more commonly hawthorn.

With such rich traditions, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of the pagan rites of spring continue to be celebrated to this day, despite the rise of Christianity and the later secularisation of society. The lighting of a community Beltane fire from which each hearth fire is then relit is still observed today throughout the Gaelic diaspora. May Day and Beltane-based festivals are widely held by many Neopagans. Wiccans celebrate a variation of Beltane as a Sabbat, one of the eight solar holidays which make up their Wheel of the Year. Such festivities are also by no means limited to Neopagans or the Celtic fringe. On May Day, Romanians celebrate the “arminden”, the beginning of summer, symbolically tied with the protection of crops and farm animals. In Finland May Day is known as Vappu, when carnival-style street festivals are held throughout the country, while in Hawaii, it is called Lei Day, and is normally set aside as a day to celebrate island culture in general and native Hawaiian culture in particular. All of this shows that perhaps the beginning of spring and the festivals associated with it are no longer restricted to having a particular religious significance but have grown far beyond that. Now May Day is just a good excuse to throw a great party and be thankful that, for a few months at least, the days will be longer, brighter and warmer. If that’s not worth celebrating, I don’t know what is!

6 Responses to “Rites of Spring”

  1. southerngoddessparanormal May 1, 2013 at 6:25 am #

    Reblogged this on Southern Goddess Paranormal and commented:
    Very informative piece 😉

  2. familynomadic May 1, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    Newly living in Sweden, I asked a Swedish friend of mine what the significance of the giant bonfire the community was hosting on the night of April 30. He didn’t know, said it was just fun. Thanks for your post, which added some additional illumination to the rite.

  3. Meredith May 5, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    A very beautiful post – thank you! I suppose you weren’t really looking at the political so much, but in England May Day is also Labour day, and there are marches that many of the Unions take part in celebrating worker’s solidarity and achievements. I say in England because although Labour Day is international, I think it happens on a different day in quite a lot of countries and I didn’t want to make incorrect generalisations. An interesting addition to an old tradition, perhaps?
    I had a lovely Beltane jumping fires in my garden, really feel like WInter is gone now.

  4. R Andrew Ohge August 15, 2013 at 2:45 am #

    Rites of Spring Evokes so much, it’s almost a “Race Memory”. Of course, I had to add my two cents worth, so I did a Theme Narrative on it. I think you’ll get it:

    The Rite Of Spring-In Six Scenes


    “What do you want?”

    Eyes, at first sparkling with
    a hint of humor, then demure,
    averted, tremulous shudders…a
    titter, looking away at nothing
    in particular.
    Drawing close, now…warm caress
    of trembling fingers sending
    chills down your back…
    the brush of a flushed cheek.

    “What do you want?”

    This dance is old as time,
    like life courting death,
    knowledge sewn into your flesh,
    with the summer’s musk, the
    merging of hearts and blood,…parry,
    feint, and lunge, ’til the
    combatants fall as slain in
    sweet surrender.

    “What do you want?”

    Scene II

    A faint trace of musk and sweat stirs behind
    carnations, orchids, and a potpourri of cologne.
    The D.J. changes the rhythms and the moods as
    as crinoline and satin brush in whispers against
    silk and wool under the spotlight moon in
    a paper mache dream, waiting for
    “Teen Angel” and “The Queen Of Hearts”
    to lead the restless troop to the parking lot
    to drive into the night for burgers and shakes,
    a ‘Country Club’ breakfast, or riverside tryst,
    where the magic will fade in the grey light
    of a coming dawn, where the insectile
    drone of real life begins.

    Scene III

    Across the gulfs of
    time and space, she comes,
    to hover invisible above
    the bronze tiara of
    the May Queen, as she makes
    the ancient measured steps,
    intoning the sacred words.
    The newly fallen May King
    is laid lovingly face down
    in the fresh furrow, adorned
    with precious oils
    and sacred garlands.
    He pours his life and seed
    into the fallow earth, as the
    Queen and Court look on
    lovingly, earnestly singing
    of simple hope, of newborn
    children, corn, and honey,
    for a fertile new year.

    Scene IV

    Calm, strong, and steady, he turns the wheel to
    bring the great machine into a new set of rows,
    the thrum of the motor a background to the hum
    and whoosh of the A.C. fan, in counterpoint to the
    classic rock and market futures.
    Though it’s mid-morning, he’s nearly two-thirds done,
    the sunrise, pancakes, eggs, bacon, and mugs
    of coffee a good half day past.
    He gazes out and down through the cab’s window
    at the rich black earth…a midnight rain
    has kept the dust down…so far.
    A fly, trapped in the cab, drifting lazily in the
    A.C. blast, lights to warm on a sunlit window.
    Here’s the power, flour, and whiskey, the
    sowing and reaping that drives the dreams
    of the nation and the hopes of the sower.
    If luck and the weather hold, it will be
    another good year, with a little more debt
    retired, some new tools, seed, and repairs,
    maybe some new windows on the house.
    He watches his dad turn through the end row
    in the neighboring field and waves cheerfully.
    He turns his eyes forward, thinking about the
    end of school, a dimpled, freckle-faced girl,
    summer nights…and maybe a spring wedding.

    Scene V

    The ‘Front’, stagnant, like the puddles
    and ponds left by the last snows, begins to flow
    with the lengthening days of late April warmth,
    the sound of the Tigers accompanied by
    the ghost feet of the Partisans, stirring through
    the underbrush, peering from lofts and barns.
    Gray man in Green and Gray uniforms,
    slogging through the mud gathering resolve
    for the ‘push’ to the Caucasus, to the oilfields,
    for the fuel aplenty to finish this campaign.
    Worn down by the Russian winter’s
    relentless cold, weary of short supplies, and yet…
    they still believe in the ‘Grand Vision’
    pulling them deeper into these endless steppes,
    pulling them toward their destiny, toward
    Stalingrad, toward Walpurgisnacht 1942,
    a day for beginnings, a mild April
    evening, full of promise.

    Scene VI

    She let’s the gate fall shut behind her, making
    sure her long flowered sundress is free.
    She puts her left hand on the bowl of
    her straw hat as the late April breeze
    tries to lift it skyward.
    The tiled stone walk is bordered with roses,
    with juniper and flowering pear, as the
    willows and silver maples lift their
    applause, echoed by the shivering poplars.
    At the fountain, she steps away to a
    copse nestled in a quiet dell.
    Stopping before the granite marker, she fingers
    the solitary red rose clasped in her right hand
    before tenderly placing it atop the marker.
    Silently, she wipes away a tear,
    and whispers, “I love you.”
    Then, hand atop her hat as the breeze stirs
    again, she adds, “Until next time…see you then”,
    turns and walks away.

    Believe it or not, I wrote it all in a couple hours. All of my Poems/Narratives start as Visions or Lucid Dreams[Pretty straight up as there was no pharmaceutical influence at work-not that I’m knocking that…many Cultures wouldn’t have it any other way.

  5. william August 19, 2013 at 3:24 am #

    Your place can be valueble for me. Thanks!…


  1. Cool things around the web – May 11th, 2013 | Playground for Life - May 11, 2013

    […] – Rites of Spring […]

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