Beltane in the U.K. during the lockdown

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GLASTONBURY, England – TWH’s last article from the U.K. featured news of how Pagans in the country were responding to lockdown, from undertaking nature walks to treating the lockdown as a form of retreat. As we draw closer to Beltane, however, traditionally a time when people gather in large numbers around local maypoles, how are British pagans treating the current crisis?

Maypole on May Day in Padstow – Image credit: Rod Allday, CC BY-SA 2.0 

Obviously, most of the gatherings planned to take place over Beltane have been cancelled. Glastonbury, for example, usually has a maypole ceremony and a parade featuring the town’s Dragon drummers, led by representations of a red and a white dragon.

This year, organisers are asking that Pagans stay away and most have said on social media that they will comply, but there is at least one event intended to take place in town over the Beltane weekend: this is organised by a local business and is basically a lockdown protest.

One of these took place a week or so ago and featured the brother of the former Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn: his brother Piers is a weather forecaster and climate denier, who subscribes to the idea that there is no pandemic. Around 30 – 40 people attended.

The protest angered local Pagans and the town generally: a number of locals have now lost family members to the pandemic and most of the population of Glastonbury have been adhering to the U.K.’s lockdown rules. The police were called to the protest and advised the crowd on current government guidelines and if another such protest goes ahead this weekend, it is likely that this will happen again.

A number of Pagans are focusing their efforts on solitary or household practice: one contact in the Welsh Borders announced on Facebook that they have appointed the role of Queen of the May to the cat and will be celebrating Beltane with her!

Others are using the many digital methods, such as Zoom, YouTube and Skype, to hold rituals. This may have the effect of bringing British and U.S. pagans, and those in other countries, closer together.

Laura Tempest Zackroff and Nathaniel Johnstone, for example, will present a live stream ritual music and dance performance in celebration of the Beltane season via YouTube.

The Beltane Fire Society (BFS) has announced a new project, Beltane Online Fire Festival (BOnFire), in place of this year’s cancelled Beltane Fire Festival. The BFS is a charity that organises the spring Beltane Fire Festival and autumn Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh every year. This year’s Beltane Fire Festival, which has an estimated audience of 8,000, was cancelled on 17 Mar due to the pandemic – only the second time the festival has been cancelled in 32 years.

Beltane 2019 Edinburgh Calton Hill – Image credit: Nyri0 – CC BY-SA 4.0

The chair of Beltane Fire Society’s board, Brad MacArthur, said:

Although it was a disappointing decision to cancel our physical Beltane Fire Festival due to the current pandemic affecting the world, it is thanks to the resilience shown by our volunteer community in wishing to still mark the changing of the seasons that we are taking this new approach to celebrating Beltane! We hope this approach brings our creativity and joy to people’s homes all around the world who still wish to celebrate Beltane. Although it is not our traditional format, we feel people will still be able to get that traditional Beltane Fire Festival feeling from what we have planned for the day.

You can join the BFS on their website, on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where the traditional journey around Calton Hill will be replicated in a series of chapters. Each chapter is a time slot, during which poems, pictures, video and audio will be shared along with messages from volunteers.

BOnFire begins on Thursday 30th April at 7:00 pm GMT and is set to finish at 10:00 pm. There is no ticket charge but you can make a donation.

Other Pagans will be holding grove or coven meetings by digital means and some have already done so for the Spring Equinox.

The U.K. was already planning for changes to the May Day (rather than specific Beltane) celebrations this year, as in 2020 the May Bank Holiday, which this year would normally have been held on the 4th of the month, has been moved to the following Friday to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe Day).

However, a number of organisations are also holding virtual May Day celebrations over the first weekend in May: Aberdeen will be holding Virtual May Day, for instance, which will bring together more than 15 local businesses to provide 12 hours of live music, cocktail tutorials and food and drink deliveries.

Organiser Paul Clarkson says:

“I wanted to bring local businesses together to try and create something fun and I’ve been so chuffed with the response. The togetherness is amazing; it’s so heartening. We’re all trying to help each other through the tough times and we’re supporting two great local charities. As long as we can raise some money and put a smile on folks’ faces during this time I’ll be happy.”

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