Yesterday I was invited to a celebration of Beltain at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, right on the border with West Sussex. The site is a working ‘ancient farm’ where archaeologists can experiment to test their theories of now people lived in Iron Age Times.
Beltain itself is the Gaeilic May Day festival – held to celebrate the beginning of summer. As I now understand it Beltain – the beginning of summer – and Samhain – the begining of Winter – are the most important of 4 Gaelic festivals. Beltain seems to have the general positive theme of celebrating light and renewal of life – and is celebrated with bonfires.
In the case of the festival yesterday, the culmination was the burning of a giant Wicker Man, into which during the day everyone could place a small wish – there is something quite moving in seeing all of these hopes written on small pieces of paper, tied to twigs in the Wicker Man – and then to watch them burn and the embers flow into the night sky.
There was much that to me seemed so positive about the afternoon and evening. There was such a range of people, and the underlying themes of folk and Irish music, Jigs and dancing – although always layered with symbolism if you chose to be receptive to it – could just be accepted as a simple celebration of the dawning of summer. There were no priests, no nonsense – just wine food and beer, the making of wreaths to wear for the evening from vines and plants, music and face painting.
Young and old mingled in this ancient farm, watching small displays, belly dancers or just sitting on the grass and talking with friends – and at the end all watched the burning of the Wicker Man in this ancient site, free to have their own thoughts and responses, and to keep them to themselves.
If this simple, unpretentious, yet quietly respectful celebration is something of the spirit of modern paganism then in my view there should be much more of it in the world.