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Celebrating May Eve/May Day/Calan Mai/Beltaine in Style!

With the merry ring, adieu the merry spring,
For summer is a-come unto day,
How happy is the little bird that merrily doth sing,
In the merry morning of May.”

Verse from the ‘Day Song’ sung on May 1st at Padstow in Cornwall.

Green Man maskAt this time of year in the UK, we’re peculiarly blessed with opportunities to publicly celebrate our Druid spirituality. May Day is one of our ancient festivals that has maintained a rich tradition of celebrations throughout the four nations, though often now celebrated on the first Monday in May, which was designated a bank holiday in 1978, rather than on May 1st. It survived a 1993 attempt by John Major’s Conservative government to remove it as a bank holiday and replace it with Trafalgar Day in October. David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition revived the idea in 2011, again without success. The reason for these attempts to suppress May Day is that it had become linked with International Workers Day, which grew out of a resolution passed by the 1904 Sixth Conference of the Second International which called on “all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” This was enthusiastically taken up by the Trade Union movement in the UK who organised colourful and well-attended marches across the UK on the day.

May blossomMay Day’s origins are, however, far older, stemming from a pagan celebration of the arrival of the year’s summer half, just as Hallowe’en marks the arrival of its winter half. May Day marks winter’s last gasp, the onset of warmer weather, the return of green growth to the vegetable realm, the birth of wild and domestic animals and birds and thus fertility in general. It has always been one of the most widely and enthusiastically celebrated of traditional festivals throughout Europe.

May Day Morris dancer at Ham HillMay Day traditions include bathing one’s face in May morning dew to restore or retain a youthful appearance; young people cutting twigs from flowering May (i.e. Hawthorn) trees and using them as ‘May gads’ to lightly whip other young persons, particularly those they are attracted to; lighting pairs of fires between which domestic animals are driven to purify and protect them through the coming year; dancing, especially Morris dancing; dressing as animals or other non-human beings, a practice known in the UK as ‘guising’; electing a young woman to act as ‘May Queen,’ and often a young man as her consort; staging mock battles between the forces of summer, led by the May Queen and her consort, and the forces of winter, often led by an old woman who is often a man in drag; and decorating the home with seasonal flowers.

Many parts of the British Isles continue to hold May festivities in which members of the public may take part. Beltaine fires are still kindled in some parts of Ireland. Peebles in the Scottish Borders holds an annual celebration and a massive, and gloriously Pagan, Beltane Fire Festival takes place on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. In Wales, celebrations traditionally began with the lighting of a May Eve bonfire on Nos Galan Haf, the ‘Night of the Calends of Summer,’ followed the next day by dancing and the singing of May carols. If you fancy making a joyful noise, Cornwall has the May Horns celebration in Penzance, featuring a giant Crow and high-pitched whistles made from Sycamore; the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss festival; and assorted giants; Shropshire has the Clun Green Man Festival and other events at Shifnal and elsewhere; Sussex has its Jack-in-the-Green Festival centred around Hastings Castle but taking over the whole town; Morris dancers greet the May morning sunrise on the ridge above the Long Man of Wilmington.

Edinburgh: Beltane Fire FestivalMythago Morris dance maskMost of these events are happy to have Druids simply turn up and take part as spectators. If you’d like to be more actively involved, you could contact the organisers and see if they’re amenable to having some Druidic input. Personally, I’ve been happy just to join in with the other drummers who attend the Jack-in-the-Green Festival in Hastings. In the 1990s, Tim Sebastion, late founder of the Secular Order of Druids, researched a local celebration in Frome that had died out and revived it with support from the town council, mayor and local traders. It’s still running as an annual event. Or you could join a Morris team. There are now a number of Pagan Morris sides in the UK. Many of them dress and dance in the ‘Border Morris’ style. Some weave dances into folk dramas depicting historical and/or legendary events. All are hugely entertaining and fun to hang out with. All eagerly welcome new recruits, whether dancers, musicians, or both.

The plethora of public May Day events throughout the British Isles mean that it’s not necessary to seek out a dedicated Druid grove in order to ceremonially celebrate the end of winter and beginning of summer.

Long Man of Wilmington, SussexIf you want something with a more specifically Druidic focus, there are groups who hold open rites at various sacred sites including the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, the Stanton Drew stone circles south of Bristol and the Avebury henge in Wiltshire. Many of these were inspired by the open Gorsedd founded by the British Druid Order at Avebury in 1993. Some use the original rite I composed for Avebury as a template. You can find a copy HERE.

An online search or a visit to your local library or museum may, as Tim Sebastion found, reveal specific local celebrations you might like to revive in whole or in part. The same may also reveal little-known local sacred sites that might provide a magical venue for your celebrations. If you’re lucky enough to have a decent-sized garden, a May Eve bonfire makes a great focus for celebrating the joy of summer’s return.

However you choose to celebrate, may your celebrations be truly blessed.
So may it be!

Greywolf /|\

And now, for your delectation and delight, here's Steeleye Span performing their excellent rendition of the Padstow May Day Song....

Published on Categories Ceremony, Druidry, RitualTags , ,
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About Greywolf

I'm Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass). My main claim to fame (such as it is) is that I'm chief of the British Druid Order (BDO). I discovered Druidry in 1974, seeing it as a native British 'shamanic' spirituality. An Alexandrian Wiccan coven I joined in 1978 transformed into the Grove of the Badger as Druidry increasingly replaced Wicca in its rites. The end result was the BDO. Emma Restall Orr was joint chief of the Order with me from 1995 to 2002. I live in rural Wiltshire, not far from my spiritual heartland, the area in and around the Avebury henge. I'm a writer, musician, artist, drum-maker, roundhouse-builder and thatcher. I have three sons who share my obsession with music, books and film. Personal obsessions include the work of Britain's greatest bard, Robin Williamson, the comic books of Jack 'King' Kirby (1907-1994) and the speed-freak rock'n'roll of The Screaming Blue Messiahs.

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