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Culture

The Fires of Bel and May Day as Well

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oxford mayday

Like most folklore customs and traditions, Beltane has its roots in the Dark Ages, when the ancient Celts divided the year into four major festivals – Samhain, Imbolic, Beltane, and Lughnasadh. Beltane – a Celtic word meaning ‘the fire(s) of Bel’ – marks the beginning of summer and celebrates longer and lighter days, the rebirth and renewal of spring, and the hope for a plentiful harvest in the year ahead. Beltane is still celebrated throughout the UK today – especially in Oxford – though it is now better known as May Day.

The Bealtaine Blessing

Bless, O Threefold true and bountiful,

Myself, my spouse, and my children,

My tender children and their beloved mother at their head,

On the fragrant plain, at the gay mountain sheiling,

On the fragrant plain, at the gay mountain sheiling.

Everything within my dwelling or in my possession,

All kine and crops, all flocks and corn,

From Hallow Eve to Beltane Eve,

With goodly progress and gentle blessing,

From sea to sea, and every river mouth,

From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.

Symbolic of the fertility of the earth, the renewal of life, and the union of the divine masculine and feminine energies, Beltane’s celebration intertwines seamlessly with Oxford’s rich May Day custom, blending pagan and Christian traditions into a vibrant spectacle. Each year, locals and visitors alike gather at the break of dawn beneath the towering spires of Magdalen College. At the first light of dawn, the Magdalen College Choir welcomes the day by singing hymns from the college's Great Tower. This enchanting choral performance, known as the Hymnus Eucharisticus, has been a cherished May Day tradition since the 16th century.

The celebrations then begin to spill out onto the streets of Oxford – cafes and pubs open their doors as early as 5am ready to welcome in the early birds for their boozy breakfasts, and Morris dancers adorned in ribbons and bells get ready to perform their intricate routines. Oxford in particular has a strong connection to the Morris dancing tradition, and some local groups are even widely regarded as having had a hand in its revival. Decked with ribbons and garlands, The Maypole becomes the focal point of these jubilant dances.

Beltane is more than this festival of frivolity as we know it though, it is also a time for energy rituals and deep connections with nature. The Beltane season is a time of fertility, not only for people but for the land as well. Fire, revered as a symbol of purification and healing, played a vital role in ancient celebrations, and continues to do so today. Community members would dance and leap over the flames as an act of renewal. Throughout Oxfordshire, bonfires still blaze on hilltops, casting a warm glow across the land, honouring the sun's life-giving power. Those who don’t wish to join in on jumping across the fire can seek the healing touch of the Beltane dew, said to possess magical properties. Traditionally, The dew was collected in a jar, left in sunlight, and then filtered, the contents of which were then thought to bring beauty and youthfulness.

With so many mythical traditions surrounding this occasion, there’s lots you can do to celebrate Beltane in your own way; here are a few more magical suggestions…

Make Your Own Flower Crowns

You’ll stand out on May Day without being adorned with at least some flora and fauna. Follow in the footsteps of the enigmatic figure of Beltane: The Green Man, an ancient symbol of rebirth and the cycle of nature.

Appease The Fairies

As the veil between the human realm and the supernatural is said to thin during this time, it is believed that fairies emerge to join in the festivities. These ethereal beings, known for their mischievous nature, are said to dance in the moonlight and weave enchantments under the starry skies. In ancient lore, offerings were left at the edges of forests and meadows to appease the fairies and seek their blessings for a bountiful season ahead. You can create your own fairy altar to keep the fairies sweet, by gathering colourful flowers, ripe fruits, and sweet-smelling scents and placing them around the boarders of your garden.

Spells and Manifestation

Beltane is rich with fertility and love magic, so it’s the perfect time to channel your intentions and manifest them into existence. A simple way to do this is to write your wishes down and let the wind carry them away.

In an ever-changing world, these timeless traditions serve as a poignant reminder of the constant cyclical nature of life. Let’s celebrate the ancient rhythms of the earth and reaffirm our connection to nature and to each other. Happy May Day, dear readers – how will you celebrate?

Many thanks to The Museum of Oxford for providing valuable information on Beltane, you can read their full piece here: museumofoxford.org/why-is-may-day-so-important-in-oxford

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