How to Celebrate Beltane in Appalachia
Feast of Flowers
As the culmination of spring gradually trails into summer, the welcome sound of rain heralds an abundance of blossoms. Halfway between the equinox and the solstice, Beltane, or May Day, functions as one of the most significant dates on the Wheel of the Year. Similar but opposite to Samhain, or Halloween, Beltane honors the spirits of nature and celebrates the enduring power of witchcraft.
Night of the Witches
Beltane has ancient Celtic origins as a fertility festival at the beginning of summer. As depicted in the cult classic 1973 film The Wicker Man, communities have traditionally offered sacrifices to the gods and spirits of nature on this date for a bountiful harvest in the months ahead. While not as elaborate or cunning as the movie plot conceived by director Robin Hardy, May Day has long been associated with bonfires and roasting pigs.
Other common Beltane festivities include dancing around a May Pole and the coronation of a May Queen. Typically made from the trunk of a birch tree, May Poles provide clear and potent symbols of fertility as dancers weave ribbons around the tree together.
Welsh customs begin the night before, on Nos Galan Haf. Like the night of Halloween, Nos Galan Haf is a time when Earth and the Otherworld coexist on the same plane. On the European mainland, Pagans have long celebrated the Hexennacht in resistance to Christianity. Some also refer to this date as Walpurgisnacht in reference to Saint Walpurga, an eighth century abbess who attempted to stomp out the native religious beliefs from her community. In more recent years, witches around the world have reclaimed this night to remember the tragic history of persecution by Christians.
Prior to the rise of Chrisitanity in Europe, the Celts worshipped a solar deity named Belenus who the Romans equated with Apollo. Around the same point on the calendar, the Romans held the festival of Floralia in honor of Flora, goddess of flowers.
Ever since the fiery events of the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, May Day has also brought revolutionaries together to recall the centuries-long struggle against the ruling elite.
If only spring could last forever, flowers ever-blossoming for eternity, but the petals must eventually drop away like rain for the fruit to swell in the summer heat. With the bulbs and ephemerals turned to memory once again, the palette shifts to hues more saturated with vibrancy. Traditional plants from Eurasia associated with Beltane include primrose, hawthorn, rowan, and hazel; but in Appalachia, ericaceous plants like rhododendron, azalea, and mountain laurel take center stage. Shadows grow across the valleys as trees leaf out to a verdant canopy and another growing season takes shape.