The mark of a mature festival is that it moves from religious in origin, all the way through centuries of folk customs and then fixes itself in the secular calendar.
This has happened already with a number of European pagan festivals (Easter, Christmas, Halloween, etc) but Beltane hasn’t moved beyond ‘folk’ yet. And this year, it seems, a lot of people are taking a serious look at it. Check out this enlightening post at Dionysian Atavism -from the other last surviving chaos magician on the internet. (We’re like one of those Amazonian tribes Jim Cameron likes to hang out with.)
I really resonate with his thinking. My own solution is a little more -shall we say- Middle Class than Mr Faust’s but the underlying thinking is broadly similar. Beltane is largely twee and often poorly executed.
On the folk level, there are still May Day activities all over England this weekend but it would be a stretch to call them secular. Mostly because it’s just a tiny minority of English people behaving in ways that continue to endear them to me: dressing up in funny clothes, nominating teenage girls to sit in a cart and ride through the village streets, dancing around big sticks… Cute, cute cute.
Personally, however, I have decided to use this Beltane to test my ‘secularisation formula’. Here’s why:
Reasons to be secular
- I’m out of town giving that presentation I mentioned and won’t be back until Saturday (Beltane). Not much prep time.
- Technically, I’m only pagan in the broad, pantheistic sense of the word. Not in any kind of observational; even noticeable; sense.
- I’ll be on my own for most of the day and I’m still scarred from the memories of my ‘awkward teenage Wiccan’ days of truly terrible solo rituals performed at night in my bedroom. Mom probably knew what I was up to but I really hope she just thought I was masturbating.
- Festivals -especially agricultural ones- are celebratory. They aren’t secret daily mysteries performed in the Karnak temple complex.
- Bonfires look a little out of place in central London. There’s a chance I’d be shot by a twitchy policeman who has mistaken me for a terrorist. (Al Qaeda has really let itself go if its terrorists look anything like me.)
But I suppose it is this last point that has really piqued my professional magical interest:
- A ritual can be considered the performance of a series of deliberate actions designed to mark a temporal event.
Does this mean there is any difference between gathering some magical accoutrement, picking a time and space and then quietly marking a spiritual date versus sourcing local, seasonal ingredients and spending the exact amount of time, energy and intent putting together a really awesome, fuck-off Beltane meal for your nearest and dearest?
The secular Beltane formula
Luckily enough, my work has taken me to Somerset and Avon -home of Glastonbury Tor, Avebury, Stonehenge, etc. This is the mythical homeland for Anglo-Celtic spirituality.
On a more practical level, it’s also one of England’s most celebrated agricultural areas; home of amazing cider, cheese, fresh fruit and vegetables, all the more delicious pig parts and a dizzying rainbow (literally) of artisanal ales.
(Have I mentioned how much I love living in the UK?)
Of course, this just turns out to be one of those happy coincidences that afflicts us magical folk way more often than everyone else. If I were in London (or even New Zealand) I’d be doing the same thing with whatever local ingredients I can lay my secular hands on.
The meal in question
So, a local, seasonal meal designed to celebrate an agricultural festival. This has got to include purple sprouting broccoli. If you haven’t had this before, I’m pretty sure it, along with asparagus, is the gods’ way of making up for having to endure English winters. Like the asparagus, it has a brief seasonal window of around exactly now.
But I will be spending half the day getting back into London so it has to be easy. This purple sprouting broccoli, leek and almond tart should do the trick.
West Country cheeses and ciders, as well. So I might start with some kind of warm mezze plate type thing so I can get some asparagus in the mix. Should be able to get some meat into the dish here, as well. Local seafood, maybe some ham. Oh, this is going to be good.
If I had the time, I’d make some blood orange ice cream but I’ll just go for some kind of seasonal fruit/custard combo for dessert, I think.
A covert formula?
What I really like about this secularisation formula is that you can secretly inflict a little paganism on unsuspecting friends and relatives. The poor sods will just think they’re coming around for a nice meal.
Until, that is, they ask why you have a large green candle in the middle of the dining table.
“No reason. Finish your cider.”
Happy Beltane, internets!