The first of May is celebrated by many Pagans as the festival of Beltane, one of the Celtic four great cross quarter fire festivals that celebrates the first day of Summer. This time of year all of nature is bursting with fertility, the Earth is clad in green, there are flowers everywhere and the birds and wild animals are having their young. It is a time of sunshine and showers, rising sap and fresh potent growth.
This was the night of the 'Greenwood marriage' when the union of the Horned God and the fertile goddess was re-enacted by young men and women. It was the one day that flowering branches of the taboo Hawthorn tree could be brought in to decorate the home too.
In the past, most towns and villages would have had their own celebrations for this day, and today many areas in the UK still celebrate the beginning of Summer with bonfires, maypole and Morris dances, processions, hobby horses, Jack-in-the Green and the crowning of the May Queen.
In Minehead, Somerset a procession starts on May eve and is led by a boat-shaped hobby horse that dances it's way through the streets collecting donations for local charities on it's way. This 'Sailors horse' has ancient connections to the local sea-faring community and the custom dates back hundreds of years. Another horse called the 'Town Horse' also tours the town and they are both accompanied by musicians and dancers.
In the Cornish fishing port of Padstow is a centuries old tradition of the 'Obby Oss ' procession. This festival starts on May eve at midnight when the locals get together to sing the 'Night song' . By morning the town has been dressed in greenery and flowers and a huge decorated Maypole stands in the town square. There are two seperate parades, one with the blue Oss and one with the red Oss, both are prodded on by 'Teasers' and they try to catch young women while they dance their way through the town followed by a procession of musicians and dancers all singing tradtional songs. Padstonians from all across the world travel back every year to take part in this fertiltiy festival.
Other celebrations include one in Charlton-on-Otmoor that involves the local school children taking part in a procession all dressed in white and carrying garlands of flowers to the local church. The flowers are placed below the Rood screen, which is decorated with a Rood cross wrapped in Yew leaves and branches. After a special service the children and their families make their way back to the school for Maypole dancing and a special May Day feast.
The Rochester Sweeps festival on May 1st celebrates the traditional holiday that Chimney sweeps enjoyed on this day, and is a day of entertainment, traditional music and dancing.
In other towns, ancient customs are still being revived. In Hastings East Sussex is a 4 day celebration called the 'Jack-in-the-Green festival. There were celebrations held here until around 1889 and the custom was revived in 1983 by the Mad Jacks Morris dancers. This festival has become very popular and now thousands of people visit the town every year to join in with the event that has been described as 'Thee celebration of Morris dancing and traditional merriment centering on the symbolic figure of Jack-in-the-Green and culminating in a wild costume parade - one of the most bizarre in Britain!'
Wherever you live, do a bit of research and find out whats going on in your area. Celebrate the Summer and the old traditions as our ancestors have been doing for centuries.
A Calendar of festivals - Marian Green
Sacred Celebrations - Glennie Kindred