In parts of England, people get up at stupid-o-clock in the morning to wave handkerchiefs around a substitute penis, then paint ourselves green (or dress up as animals, nature spirits or chimney sweeps) and parade around town behind a man dressed as a tree, banging drums and eating cake before then finally ripping our tree man apart on top of a hill and (optionally) having some fun in the local woodland. This is Beltane, aka May Day and it’s my favourite festival. 😀
For the non-pagans, Beltane is a bit like an alternative Valentine’s Day- a lot of love, joy and blessing everything in reach. It marks the peak of Spring when everything is fertile and is a big “fingers crossed” for bountiful crops and livestock. It’s also a fire festival- the name translates as “bright fire” and it is the symbolic release of the spirit of summer. (That’s Jack aka the Green Man). When I asked online what people were up to, everyone seemed to be going to this festival I’d never heard of called “Jack in the Green”- so I booked my train tickets and set off for Hastings on England’s South Coast. My friend Ruby was joining me so we booked the most perfect Airbnb we could possibly have found for the occasion. This is the chill-out area.
There was also a trampoline in the garden, art everywhere and two fabulous and creative hosts who made us feel so welcome! <3
Look at the decorated streets!! (and it isn’t England without a pub called “Yee Old-ee” something…)
LOOK AT THIS MURAL! <3
As is traditional, Ruby and I were planning to get up at 4:30am to watch the Morris Dancers greet the dawn on top of the hill. Well, that didn’t happen. We must have communicated telepathically as without a spoken word, two alarms went off, two sides of the curtain twitched, and two people dived back under two duvets.
Greeting the dawn
What are Morris Dancers? Well, they’re usually men who wear white outfits with floral hats, cover themselves in bells and ribbons, and skip about waving handkerchiefs, sticks or swords. As times and traditions have evolved, there are now plenty of female dancers too, and different groups now have different colour schemes. They traditionally greet the rising sun on the morning of May 1st but I was asleep so missed watching decorative people get drizzled on. Scroll down for a video I took when I’d woken up. 😛
We finally dragged ourselves out of bed and pelted down the rainy hill just in time for the mass gathering on the seafront, which is the ‘official’ start of the parade for those who didn’t get up at dawn. So many people dressed up- druids, drumming groups, dancers, a samba band, ‘gin fairies’ and us. 😉 Even the police were splodged with green for the day…
Symbolically Jack represents the Spring and new life- to allow the season to continue and bloom, he must be let out to dance and then be sacrificed so the spirit of Summer can be released. The guy running out the door is one of Jack’s ‘bogies’. (Explanation below… 😀 )
THIS is Jack…
Tradition and superstition
– Fertility cake. I didn’t see any this year but as my preferred state is infertility, my cake represents a fertile imagination. Traditionally of course it’s for women who want to be pregnant- and it’s fruit cake.
– Drums. The oldest musical instrument- drums reverberate and can’t be ignored. You feel the music as well as hear it, so they are the soundtrack to every parade like this. Drums and pagans go together like Reeses peanut butter chocolate and more Reeses peanut butter chocolate (yes its the first day back on my ‘usual’ diet. I can see a Reeses wrapper near my bag and I am considering licking it.)
– Bonfires. There wasn’t one here that I could see but Edinburgh’s celebration is all about the fire! It’s for cleansing and protection and in the past, animals were walked between fires as a blessing for them and the rest of the livestock in the coming year.
– Maypole. Yep, that’s a substitute penis the innocent young people are decorating with ribbons and putting a crown on. People used to have a far healthier mindset about life before this taboo about “where babies come from” started up. 😉
And on that note…
Beltane is the traditional time for pagan weddings aka handfastings (named after a part of the ceremony where the bride and groom have their hands tied together). The old vow was to stay together for a year and a day though of course many couples stay together for longer. I didn’t see anyone being handfasted this time but there were groups of people carrying long branches to symbolise groves where people would be married.
Each full moon in the pagan year is named. These days, there are some disagreements about which name goes with which moon and many alternate names, but… the “Honey Moon” is almost always listed as May or June- which is where we get the word honeymoon.
As for “greenwood” marriages…… 😉 The word ‘marriage’ is meant as in ‘union’. This is a festival about joy, lust, flowers and all the awesome stuff and it’s totally okay if you want to go and have fun with someone in the woods. That’s a “greenwood marriage”.
Anyway… back to the celebration!
So we all followed a man dressed as a giant crown-wearing shrub up a hill and through the streets. There are always a range of colourful characters in a Beltane celebration- too many and too varied for a full guide but the usual suspects are:
– Jack’s ‘bogies’ and handmaidens. (People dressed as tree spirits who assist and guard Jack through the streets. They look rather Narnia-ish because there’s a LOT of pagan influence in the Chronicles of Narnia… and next time, I’m going as a faun.)
– May Queens. (There’s one ‘official’ May Queen but plenty of young women dress in white and flowers as she does. She’s the representation of Jack’s bride. Later in the year, the crops and fruit growing represents her pregnancy).
– Animals (People dress as animals to represent the past when farmers would bring their own animals to be blessed).
– Chimney sweeps and their brides. (For good luck. That’s why.)
– Hobby Horses. (I have no idea. Does anyone know?)
– Many kinds of Morris Dancer. (Like I said, there are traditional ones, and other groups dressed as animals, pirates, shadows, guardians of the underworld and more!)
While I detest drawing parallels to the Wicker Man (and so does every eye-rolling teeth-clenching headdesking pagan who has heard this way too much), the reason this particular celebration looks a bit like the film is because the made-up creepy-as-hell festival in the film is a bastardisation of this one. This one’s way better- there’s food, everyone’s friendly and there’s more than just one beautiful woman.
Here’s a little selection of our parade…
I couldn’t even BEGIN to tell you… 0_O
Ruby and I decided as the rain started up again that we were starving and went for lunch in a half cafe half curiosity shop called “The Clockwork Crow” where we met writer and editor Magda, in a gorgeous costume. She joined us for an exploration of the shops and look around the streets post-procession. I think there should be a special website dedicated to beautiful mediaeval ladies taking camera phone photos of things.
Avast! Here be wenches! 😀 (Magda, Ruby, me)
Having set up a kind of hippy, pagan, headdress wearing corseted womens’ circle by the beer tent, we sat to put the world to rights with regular cute animal cuddling breaks, introductions and blog swapping. The day went on and groups of performers had their turns on the stage before the final show- Jack had one more dance with his bogies, handmaidens and mad Morris Men before being symbolically sacrificed for the summer. No matter how aware you are that this festival looks utterly bizarre, no matter how self conscious you are (or not), this bit is really pretty goosebumpy. Leaves and flowers get thrown everywhere, you’re lucky if you get to take home a bit of Jack (which I did- I have a leaf being pressed as I type) and the festival comes to an official end.
By that time, the wind was especially strong and every time I tried to take a photo of myself, my ivy wreath hit me in the chin and I looked like Treebeard, so we went back to our airbnb to farewell our hosts (and give them the homemade crown I had made) and head towards the station… via the local rock and biker bar (The Carlisle) that I will DEFINITELY be back in sooner rather than later.
p.s. There you go. Morris Dancers.