At dawn, I awaken and hear people still sitting around the campfire. I am unable to recognize their voices, and some are playing guitar. A while later, I step out of my tent and venture towards the strangers. The magic of the fire brings us together, so I greet them and relish the beauty of the morning. This time of morning is perfect for gathering morning dew for sacred altar water because of the alchemy of the subtle morning lights. The campfire and campsites were beautifully situated, deep in an old growth redwood grove with a spring flowing through them. The Pagan Celtic festival celebrating fire, light, and fertility is situated at the halfway point between spring equinox and summer solstice. The festival is called Beltane. The pleidies star cluster rose before sunrise this Beltane morning. By the saffron-hued morning light, the festivities of last night seemed merely something I had dreamed.
We had arrived the previous evening for the heart song circle around the campfire, or formally "Beltane Eve". There was a new moon, and the darkness thoroughly enveloped everything but the fire. In the old days, on Beltane Eve, the Celts would build two large fires lit from sacred woods. These fires are an invocation to Bel (the Sun God) to bring his blessings, and is symbolic of the burning away of the winter. It is also said that on Beltane Eve, the Queen of the Faeries is said to arrive on her white horse, and entice everyone to come to Faerieland. Now in the vibrant summery morning light, the songs I heard around the campfire last night were still echoing on the land and in my ears.
The spirits of Beltane are slowly awakening out to play. The rumor was that the preparations for the ceremony would begin at 11am. Two boys approach me with small snakes, with one in each hand. They were up early, crowing with the roosters, at the top of their lungs; literally yelling as loud as possible. Dragon, my partner, found a sleeping spot out in a meadow where he is sleeping in the sun half naked. There are white cattle jumping about freely in the meadow. I let my gaze wander from the west to east, from the meadow to the cabin. Black smoke from the campfire curls lazily into the sky. There are faeries and goddesses and phantasies everywhere about. Several of the travelers that I had met the night before are awake eating breakfast, and preparing for the ritual. Everything is here, and all of it perfect, the cauldrons for the fire, the shrines and groves, the flower petals scattered about by the children: a splendid Beltane village.
Once again, I find myself swept by admiration for the magical way these people carry out their creation of the ceremony here in Santa Cruz, California. I've been to several different celebrations here, and they are very ceremonial, and traditional. Santa Cruz has a large pagan community that stems from the influx of 60's bohemian hipppies, and they used to hold pagan plays where the roaring camp train station is today. I met several people from other countries last night, including Mexico, UK, and Israel, each of them wandering from city to city as the whim took them, and surprisingly happened upon this celebration. I imagine that around the Middle Ages in European countries, a newborn village would congeal for the Beltane festival, and travelers would visit from hundreds of miles away. Back then, every village had it's own maypole , and it is traditionally a revered symbol. Dragon wakes up when presented with an orange, and tea. He gets dressed in a shiny red shirt, pants and a royal gold robe. He is dressed like an emperor, and carrying a demeanor to match. Catching him lightly by the wrist I draw him towards me, meaning to brush my lips lightly and affectionately against his. Many people arrive with flowers and ribbons to begin preparing for the festivities this afternoon; which includes facepaint, transclucent faerie wings, and flower garlands made from calla lilies and roses. We prepare our flower crowns using bits of wire to secure the flowers. Dragon's crown gets named the "DMT stag" because of the flower horns coming off the side. The musicians begin playing elfin music with mandolins and flutes, and dancers swirl in the preparations. Everyone seems to be transformed into a mythical being.
The Beltane ritual is about to begin, so a large conch shell is blown to bring everyone together around the campfire. The high priest and high priestess in royal ceremonial attire begin the ceremony, and several speakers tell stories of Beltane symbology and meaning. From someone close at hand came a sound of a drum, and steady insistent chanting. We all sing along. The group hiked out to the location for the ritual, walking through the redwood grove, past a small wetland pond to a meadow. We all form a circle, have introductions, and call in the four directions. The ceremonial Beltane fire is brought over via a torch, and several candles are lit, one for each direction. These candles are passed around so each person can connect with the Beltane fire.
Beltane is a fertility festival as well, and relationships are honored at this festival. A young sultry lady begins singing a song of her desire for her lover, and she weaves in between the members of the circle. One of the men follows her, chasing her. Her lover is trying to catch her. They continue this frolick for a moment until at the height of her song, he tackles her and wrestles her to the ground kissing her. This couple is the May King and Queen. They are a young and attractive couple together for several years, and announcing their wedding date. There is time to give announcements, including weddings, births, deaths, new projects including asking for empowerments for the coming year. Sparkling nectar is served in small cups which we pass around the circle, and drink in the hot sun. Inwardly, I'm celebrating the union between my partner and I. We've been together for 2 1/2 years already, there are the sweetest moments of love and joy that makes enduring the difficult times a gem worth coveting. Everyone shouts and exclaims their blessings together in unison "Ya-Fatah" after every announcement.
After honoring the circle with an OM, the men and women separate into groups to prepare to bring in the Maypole. The ladies group huddles together. There are about twelve women gathering together. This is the time to speak of what we are thankful for as women, such as motherhood, and to sing folk songs. We are sitting around the hole where the Maypole will go, and it's decorated with garlands and candles. The women finally call the men to bring in the maypole. The Maypole is symbolic of uniting the three worlds. It is also a phallic symbol that is meant to bring the energy of the three worlds down into the womb of mother earth. This pole is 16ft long, and all of the men assist in bringing it over to the place in the Earth where it will be set.
Uniting the Three Worlds blurs time and space, clearly this is another realm. Everyone ties a multi-colored ribbon to the pole and the pole is pushed into place, ready for the Maypole dance. Beltane songs are sung while weaving the Maypole, and everyone walks in and out, weaving the ribbons together. I dance in trance while singing, and find myself getting the flower crown on my head flipped up in the ribbons, and the metal wires holding the crown together dig into my head. Everyone is dodging in and out to weave the ribbon, and we get crammed together. People are jammed, someone's confused about the weaving, or going too slow. Dragon's smiling, standing off to the side not participating, but watching this event take place of the faerie, elf pileup. Finally, the maypole dance is flowing, and everyone singing. A drum circle forms off to the side with djembe and doumbek drummers. The drummers drum louder and louder. The maypole is weaved together in a rainbow. I stand back from the maypole, admiring the lacy fantasy of slender pastel -hued webwork everyone created around the pole, and celebrate an abundant year ahead. The maypole dance lasted a lot longer than we had expected, and now with the sun gently dimming the skylight we are reminded to honor the fire once again.
The next step in this ritual is to jump across, or to circumambulate the fire three times. Meditate on fire for transformation of energy, to burn away things from the past and cleanse the body, physically, and spiritually. This step is to bring good luck in the year ahead, and to also become purified. This makes me very nervous because the fire seems too high to jump over. Some of the ladies begin dancing, giggling, and circumambulating. Others stand aside and watch the fire. It's a difficult task we're undertaking, best done naked? I'm standing there thinking about all of the bad habits that I want to get rid of, and all of the residue from the previous year that I'd like to leave behind. I jump. The secret to this part of the ritual is that the moment your feet hit the ground you're a new person for the year ahead. The darkness of the sundown is filling the forest with shadow, and I try to make it back to the cabin by myself, winding through the trails.
Back at the camp, the campfire from last night is still lit. Musicians gather and play a mix of banjo, persian clarinet, and guitar, and the music is mystic. Sitting by myself near the fire, I'm reminded of the countless fireside circles I've been a part of that have touched my heart. The mystic solitude I feel while listening to the sounds around the fire remind me of the blessings that fire brings. Fire is sacred to the Beltane festival, and honored for the many transformative qualities it brings into our lives.
Dragon smiles. After staying out at the campfire last night, he’s finally feeling awake by the campfire. We’re singing songs, and he seems more vibrantly alive than ever. He reaches for my hand, kissing it lightly, offering to bring me another cup of chai.