Most people are familiar with the two major spring festivals in the west: Easter and Passover, but there are several other lesser-known spring celebrations, which come from pagan tradition. We will take a look at some of the pagan festivals, which although ancient – and a bit off the beaten path – are still held today.
Ancient Pagan Festivals
Many of these festivals stem from ancient fertility rites, so caution must be used, as some celebrations in antiquity involved sexual rituals. Thus, content should be closely reviewed before presenting to students.
Beltane means “fires of Bel” in Gaelic (Bel was a Celtic god). It is a fire festival that celebrates spring and the fertility of the coming growing season. Springtime is the beginning of the agricultural calendar, and farmers would be hoping for a fruitful year for their families and crops.
Rituals of Beltane often included courting between young men and women who would collect blossoms in the forest and light fires in the evening. These rituals and pagan festivals would often lead to marriages in the coming summer or autumn. Fire was thought to cleanse, purify and increase fertility, so it played a central role in Beltane. To ensure the fertility of the herd, cattle were often paraded between two fires.
Although agriculture is no longer the center of contemporary life, some modern pagans celebrate Beltane as a way to cultivate the “fertility” of an individual’s creativity. Fertile minds are needed for our work, our families, and our health. Celebrants today will leap over fire to bring good fortune, happiness, and fertility to mind, body, and spirit.
Every year on the last night of April, thousands of people come together in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a huge celebration to mark Beltane. A procession led by the May Queen (fertility) and the Green Man (growth) marks the change of seasons. Winter concludes when the Green Man’s winter attire is removed to reveal his spring costume. A dance takes place as the Green Man and the May Queen are married.
The Roman pagan fertility-focused festival of Floralia occurred for six days beginning April 28, and this seems to be the likely origin of some of the things we associate with May Day. Roman poets Ovid and Juvenal mention the wearing of bright colors, lots of drinking, and sexual permissiveness during this celebration dedicated to Flora, the goddess of flowers. Romans marked Floralia with a set of athletic games and theatrical productions known as the Ludi Florales. After the performances, the celebration continued in the Circus Maximus, where animals were set free and beans scattered to ensure fertility.
An old Germanic festival also involving bonfires, which later merged with the feast of the eighth-century German Saint Walpurga became known as Walpurgisnacht (or Hexennacht, meaning “Witches’ Night”).
According to tradition, on the eve of May Day, all witches and warlocks would fly in from all around Germany on broomsticks or goats, and come together on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains. Here they would await the arrival of spring with bonfires and dancing. In reality, though, the gathering was probably not made up of witches, but rather ordinary pagan people who were forced to secretly practice their ancient rituals because church law forbade them to do so. The lofty Brocken was often shrouded in cloud cover, making it a good place for clandestine meetings.
Festivals co-opted by the Roman Church
By the Middle Ages, what had once been the fertility rituals Floralia and Beltane had been subsumed into the Roman Church calendar and converted into the Christian celebration of Whitsun, or Pentecost. The Welsh tale of Geraint begins with a description of the Welsh kings’ Whitsun feast, one of the three times feasts of the year, along with Christmas and Easter, when vassals were gifted with new clothes. Although disputed, it is thought by some that the word Easter was derived from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility.
Bringing in the May
May Day (May 1) celebrates the return of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, with origins in the fertility rites of ancient agrarian societies of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. May Day falls exactly 6 months from All Saints Day (November 1). This ancient festival survives today, including decorating a May tree or maypole, around which people dance. May 1 has also become linked with political action in association with International Workers Day.
In most places, people would “bring in the May” by gathering flowers and branches to make garlands or wreaths. The English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer mentions woodbine (a honeysuckle shrub) and hawthorn (a flowering shrub of the rose family) in The Knight’s Tale, while birch was more common in Wales and sycamore in Cornwall. The flowers were given as prizes or gifts to friends and neighbors. The quaint custom of washing one’s face in the morning dew of May Day was supposed to bring youth and radiance to one’s complexion.
The most lasting May Day image is the painted and ribboned-trimmed maypole which was displayed prominently on the village green. Despite the earliest recorded mention of this pagan festivals in a mid-fourteenth century Welsh poem, it seems to have English, rather than Celtic, roots. There are many theories as to the maypole’s original significance, but there is no definitive explanation.
May Day rituals go back a long time but were not enjoyed by everyone. In the 1600’s the fun-loving festivity of May Day was frowned upon by the Puritans, who banned dancing and merry-making in England.
May Day Rituals
In the fifteenth century, pantomimes of Robin Hood stories became a popular part of May Day celebrations, as did Morris dancing. This form of English folk dance is based on rhythmic footwork and the performance of choreographed steps by a group of dancers wearing bells on their shins. The dancers may also brandish sticks, swords, and handkerchiefs.
The ‘Obby ‘Oss Festival takes place in the town of Padstow in Cornwall on May Day. The main activities revolve around the two Obby Osses (hobby horses), which resemble a one-man pantomime horse. The horses’ main task is to cavort around the town in search of maidens followed by a team of dancers, dressed in white, playing accordions and banging drums.
The beginning of May, and the association of spring in general with fertility and courtship, was popularized by the medieval French troubadours. A famous song from the twelfth century known as Kalenda maya (“Calends (first) of May”) celebrates the unrequited love of a knight for a lady:
everyone praises and proclaims
your worth, which gives such pleasure;
and he who forgets you,
prizes life but a trifle
and so I adore you, distinguished lady.
Help Teaching offers related educational resources
- Beltane Facts & Worksheets
- May Day Facts & Worksheets
- Celts Facts & Worksheets
- Ostara Facts & Worksheets
- Spring Facts & Worksheets
- Summer Facts & Worksheets
Other resources include these videos
So, there you have a quick tour of some of the lesser-known festivals which celebrate the blossoming of the earth each spring. Get dressed up, wash your face in the morning dew, leave a surprise wreath of flowers for someone special, and find a sunny spot to revel in the coming of spring!
Image source: Freepik.com
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