An Old Wives rule is that fruit trees in bloom must never be pruned. “If you want the fruit, don’t pick the flower.” Old Wives make sense. But on Beltane, folk (fairies and humans) decorate homes with bowers of apple and crabapple, and outdoors celebrate the fresh season, the year’s new shape under the trees and in the woods.
Beltane is the second of the four great Celtic seasonal festivals, spring’s birthday party, thought in antiquity to be the first day of summer. Beltane means the “bright” or “goodly fire” that anticipates the sun’s increasing heat. Fires kindled this night tickle the sun’s journey up to the horizon toward climax at the Summer Solstice. Wild creatures emerge tonight. The Green Man (the Forest Man, Cernunnos, the antlered Stag God), couples with the Lady of the Green (the Queen of Crops, Maiden of Blossoms). Together, they fertilize the land.
In Cornwall, it was the custom for young people to dance wearing lilies of the valley, romping and skipping through cobbled streets and in and out of houses and gardens. (Put lily of the valley leaves on a cut, hold them in place with a bandage and they will quell the bleeding and numb the pain.)
Marvelous things happen on May Eve night, when lovers vanish into woods and fields. “Mad-merry” May marriages were made in the greenwood. May was the marrying month, until the Christian era, when Church fathers decided marriage was to be solemn, strictly for procreation, not for fun, and it was declared ill-luck to wed during that licentious time when the libidos of every sentient being are zestiest.
“In the bestiary of the heart,” Lawrence Durrell wrote, dwells “the little hairy sexer, Pan.”
In ancient and not-so-ancient times, livestock was herded round the Beltane fires to ensure their fertility. At Beltane, as at Samhain, the hearth fires were allowed to go out and were relit the next day from communal bonfires. And dancing, always dancing: around trees and sometimes on them, as on the Meavy Oak in England, whose top branches were kept clipped flat for a platform built at festival time for dancers, then feasters who ate and drank at treetop tables.
Return to Nature worship may be the only way to save Nature. The old ways act as a road map, a loose itinerary, cultural mnemonics. Spiritual colonialism or mimicking the ancient traditions aren’t required to rekindle our relationship to Nature. We can, and perhaps we should, as the poet Ezra Pound, in his best days, advised, “make it new.”