Today’s offering comes to us from Stephanie Fox, a freelance journalist and Pagan from the Twin Cities.
Winter in Minnesota’s Twin Cities can be brutal. In Minneapolis, more than five feet of snow fell this winter, and at the end of January air temperatures fell to 28º below zero, with wind-chill temperatures reaching minus 50º. Frostbite can occur within eight minutes. The arrival of spring is especially welcome here.
At Beltane, some years there are flurries in the air, but the shade trees that cover 30 percent of the city are just beginning to show their leaves, early flowers are starting to bloom, and backyard gardeners plan for the end of the frost season, only two weeks away.
Since 1975, on the first Sunday in May, a local arts and theater organization, the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, holds a celebration – a parade and a ritual that last year drew 60,000 people. Heart of the Beast described the event to Buzzfeed as a “rite of spring for artists, environmentalists and social justice activists across the spectrum.”
The Twin Cities, sometimes called “Paganistan,” may have the largest per capita population of modern Pagans in the country, with estimates of up to 10,000 Pagans living in the area. For many in this community, this May Day event is as much a part of Beltane as their own coven’s celebration. For many solitary Pagans, this is their only community ritual.
The Heart of the Beast’s Powderhorn Park May Day Parade travels 10 blocks down Bloomington Avenue, past homes built more than a century ago, through two mostly residential neighborhoods, and then turns, winding down into Powderhorn Park.
Some Pagans living in houses along the parade route hold open houses, serving coffee and brunch as crowds gather, sitting along the green strips of boulevard on the curb or in folding chairs to watch.
The parade embraces political messages of equality and ecology, featuring huge puppets created by the artists and volunteers at workshops at the Heart of the Beast’s theatre. Members of various ethnic communities in traditional garb and people of all ages in inventive costumes walk, dance, and play music along the route.
There are no motorized vehicles allowed in the parade. All the floats are people-powered and most of the participants walk the route. There are bands playing music and actors in costume and on stilts. A commune of punk-inspired bike riders on handmade 10-foot tall bicycles also rides the route.
The celebration continues all afternoon and into the evening. Local bands play at four open-air stages, food trucks line the pathway, local non-profits set up tables, and Morris Dancers and Tai Chi practitioners perform until dusk.
Once the parade reaches Powderhorn Park, it begins to transform from a street celebration into what is essentially a Pagan ritual.
Hundreds of people assemble, sitting on blankets on a hill above picturesque Powderhorn Lake to watch the annual Tree of Life Ceremony, a rite of renewal featuring musicians, dancers, and four two-story-tall puppets representing Prairie, Sky, River, and Woodlands, to await the arrival of the Sun.
After banishing despair, to the beat of drums, canoes carrying a giant Mother Sun paddle across the 11-acre Powderhorn Lake, encouraged by the cheers of the audience. The Sun Goddess arrives to awaken the Tree of Life, a giant puppet that includes a traditional maypole.
The audience sings, “You are My Sunshine” to banish the long, hard Minnesota winter. At long last, spring has officially come to the Twin Cities.
This January, the Heart of the Beast Theatre announced that after 45 years, this year’s celebration would be their last. Part of the problem is financial, caused by the event’s increasing popularity. May Day brings in $150,000, but costs between $180,000 to $200,00 to produce. Last year, the event went more than $50,000 over budget.
Executive Director Corrie Zoll says that their small theater doesn’t have the money or the infrastructure to put on an event of that size. Most of the money the group raises comes from small donors and sales of May Day t-shirts. They have no large donors, but are looking for a donor who could give seven figures to help them survive.
Several former donors, the Bush and General Mills Foundations, have ended their arts programs. The Target Foundation has also withdrawn support.
The Heart of the Beast has started a crowdfunding campaign and a special fundraiser, “MayDay for MayDay,” was held in March at the Heart of the Beast’s historic Avalon Theater. They hope to raise a total of $50,000 for May Day funding with a total goal of $200,000 for the year.
In the Twin Cities, the first weekend in May includes other festivals: an American Indian Month parade, Cinco de Mayo festivals, a Norwegian Independence Day parade, and others. Zoll said she would consider partnering with one or more of these. But would such a partnership take the Pagan element out of the event? That has yet to be seen.
“This is important for the whole alternative community,” said Dave Buth, also known as Jack Green. “This is a huge loss. It’s a real gathering event for Pagans of all sorts. I don’t know what we will do without it. It’s most important because it brings people together.”
As the yearly festival winds down, Pagans have headed toward Beltane parties around the city. One, a potluck at the home of local Pagan artist Helga Hedgewalker, a member of Prodea, a coven dating back decades, includes a maypole dance, drumming, and singing. For her the loss of the Heart of the Beast May Day is particularly difficult.
“It’s a rite of spring for everybody,” Hedgwalker said. “People come from other states to see this. Winters here are awful and for me, it’s not spring without May Day. Summer will not come until I see the flotilla of canoes with the sun puppet. Without it, it’s as if it will never be summer again.”
“I don’t know if Heart of the Beast knows this,” she said.
Heart of the Beast is currently holding a crowdfunding effort to enable the celebration to continue. More information can be found here.