Last weekend was the Beltane festival I’ve been going to for the last ten years or so. We’re actually a splinter group from a large pagan festival around here, though I wasn’t directly involved in whatever caused the split, and I used to regularly go to both festivals. But in the last several years I’ve only been going to this one since it’s smaller (and therefore more introvert-friendly) and costs only about half as much as the bigger one. I just don’t have the time or energy to go to both anymore, so I’m picking the one that’s not only cheaper and easier, but also more enjoyable for me.
We have one festival at Beltane and one at Samhain. At Samhain we do a dumb feast in honor of the Dead. Then we put offerings and notes for the Dead into a small wooden coffin and burn it on a funeral pyre. It’s always a very moving ritual with few dry eyes once it’s done. Last year one of our long-time members died of breast cancer, and it was pretty poignant realizing that now here we were honoring her as one of our Dead. This is how you build traditions. Maybe one day people will be giving notes to me in that coffin.
However, we never really had any sort of ritual for Beltane, so that campout ends up being not much more than a party. Which is fine, but it seemed out of balance to have this intense, moving ritual for Samhain and nothing for Beltane.
As it happens so often when I think of something that ought to be done and no one else is doing it, I finally went ahead and decided that my husband and I will have to provide a Maypole for Beltane. I’ve danced around a Maypole twice before, once at the big pagan festival, and once when I lived with some pagan roommates in college and we set one up in a vacant lot. Both times were lots of fun. And while Samhain is about remembering the dead, Beltane is about celebrating new life, so the ritual should be fun and full of laughter, rather than serious and solemn like a Samhain ritual. But it should still be a ritual where the gods and spirits are acknowledged and invited to join us in the festivities, rather than just a party with no spiritual component.
So I made the commitment that I would provide a Maypole this year and lead the ritual.
And then my father died of cancer.
I almost backed out. I almost said I couldn’t handle it right now. Maybe next year.
But then I decided to go ahead with it anyway. It would be good for me, I thought. Part of the healing process. To show that in the face of death, life goes on. Plus my devotional practice has really fallen by the wayside during all this, just like everything else (you should see how dirty my house is, and I’ve been eating way too much fast food since I haven’t had the time or energy to cook and eat healthily). So here it is Beltane, and I decided I would put together a fun, live-affirming ritual to mark the beginning of summer.
I set up an altar to the Vanir at the campground. Last Samhain I set up an altar for the dead that was appreciated, with several people placing offerings on it. I thought an altar for the gods and spirits of fertility and growth would be a good counterpart. I put a white tablecloth on it, and in the middle I placed a vase of spring flowers. The vase itself was one that held a bouquet of flowers given to us by my husband’s coworkers with a sympathy card attached when they heard my father had died. It crossed my mind that reusing the vase for a happy purpose might be disrespectful, but I went ahead with it anyway. I filled it with roses and yarrow from our garden. I also brought my statues of Frey and Freya, a prayer candle for Ostara, Frey’s deer antler I usually keep on my altar, and some marble eggs that I use for Easter décor. The altar didn’t get as much attention as the altar to the Dead got at Samhain, but I did get some compliments on how nice it looked. I hope Freya, Frey, and Ostara thought so too.
The Maypole dance went really well. Of course what always happens is we start going over-under-over-under just fine, until someone gets confused, then it spreads, and next thing you know people are running into each other and getting tangled in ribbon and can’t stop laughing. That’s my definition of a Maypole dance “going well”.
Afterwards when everyone had dispersed and the Maypole was left standing there with the colorful ribbons woven around it, I poured out an offering of beer at its base.
It was fun, but this past weekend didn’t quite turn into the clear-cut, “OK now I’m moving on with my life” type of event I had intended. For one thing, I inherited half my dad’s property and some of that included some nice camping equipment that I used for the first time at this campout, and we drove there in his pickup truck he told me he wanted me to have before he died. That felt weird, like I was borrowing his stuff temporarily and it’s not really mine. It also felt haunted in a way.
This is the time of year when I feel the presence of the Vanir in my life more, and Odin tends to step back a bit. But Frey and Freya are no strangers to death either, even though they’re not thought of as “dead gods” like Odin is. Freya does take half the battle slain, and Frey is associated with burial mounds and there’s the (possibly modern) notion that he’s sacrificed at Lammas and is reborn. So while I was trying my best to honor them last weekend, my mind would still wander back into grief from time to time. I just hope they understood that I was trying my best.
Death reminds us that life is precious. Maybe this is how Samhain and Beltane complement each other. The last time I saw my dad healthy was at my wedding. How was I to know then that he would die of cancer before he even reached 65? He was perfectly healthy until he was diagnosed with esophagus cancer only last fall, then he was dead within six months. Meanwhile my husband’s parents are in their late 70’s and are still in pretty good shape. You just never know. My husband is 14 years my senior, so before I married him, my mom (never missing an opportunity to bring down a happy occasion) was sure to remind me that he’ll die before me and I’ll be alone. But I could die in a car accident next week on my way to work, and then he’d be the one who’s alone.
You really just never know. It’s certain that everyone is going to die, but nobody knows how or when. The lesson here is to embrace life as much as you can. All my gods seem to be in agreement about that.