Beltane, meaning bright fire, is one of the four Celtic cross-quarter festivals celebrating the changing of seasons. “People have, as far as we can tell, [always] celebrated the changing of the seasons,” Dr. Robin Larsen, co-founder and director of the Center for Symbolic Studies says. Beltane, an ancient festival typically celebrated on the last two days of April and the first two days of May is a time to awaken the earth’s spirit to get ready for spring. “March doesn’t feel so spring like,” Larsen says. “When you get to the end of April you’re really there and you know summer is coming.”
The beginning of May is also the first turning of the herds to wild pastures. In ancient times cattle would be driven between Belfires, made with sacred woods and dried herb, to ensure fertility and protect them from sickness. The center’s festival honors the tradition by having two small fires initiate their pageant with a procession of dancers, singers, giant puppets, jesters, and horses walking between them. “[It’s a] Renaissance fair/music festival,” Mikki Lee Weaver, an organizer and attendee of the festival for 10 years says. “It’s very much a theatrical production involving dance and music.” The pageant leads up to the crowning of the new king and queen of the May, usually local teenagers. Like acupuncture nudging the earth, a may pole is driven into the ground, becoming the center of the celebration. may pole dancers as well as guests to the festival dance around the pole. “It’s like stepping into a little fantasy world,” Weaver says. “A lot of people will dress up for the event even though they are not involved in any of the performances.”
With games to participate in and crafts for the children, there is a good variety of age groups at the festival. People are encouraged to bring musical instruments, Frisbees, flowers, picnics, and pillows. As the night falls and the pageant ends, a large Beltane bonfire is lit. Revelers dance around the flames, celebrating new life. Drumming ends the festival, carrying on until late in the night. “You’re waking the dragon,” Larsen says. “You’re saying come out, come to life, bring the spring rain, bring the summer in.”
The 18th annual Beltane Festival will be held at the Center for Symbolic Studies in Rosendale on Saturday, April 26, at 1pm. (845) 380-2885; www.symbolicstudies.org.