‘Pagans’ author Ethan Doyle White explores the rich Pagan festivals and rituals associated with Spring, from May Day to Wiccan celebrations.
For many communities across the Northern Hemisphere, the arrival of Spring is a cause for celebration, as the darker days of winter pass by, the hours of light lengthen, and the time for planting crops approaches.
Of all the world’s many springtime festivals, perhaps the best-known is Easter. Although ostensibly a Christian festival marking the death and resurrection of Christ, in today’s world Easter, like its counterpart at Christmas, has undergone considerable secularisation. Even if they do not embrace its theological message, millions of non-Christians around the world still celebrate Easter, taking time off work, gathering with their families, and tucking into such festive delicacies as chocolate eggs and hot-cross buns. Although lamented by some Christians, this mixing of the Christian and the secular is not unexpected. Such a blurring and blending of different perspectives has long been a feature of the Easter celebration. Indeed, according to the English monk Bede, writing in the eighth century, the name “Easter” was adopted among English Christians in reference to a non-Christian goddess, Eostre. Festival, like all facets of human culture, can be dynamic, religiously syncretic, and open to adaptation.
Spring was a time of celebration for many communities across Europe long before they converted to Christianity. From at least the fourth century, Christians typically referred to these non-Christian religions as “pagan.” In contrast to Christianity’s monotheistic belief in a single creator God, these “pagan” religions were typically polytheistic, believing in a wide range of deities, including both male gods and female goddesses. In parts of Ireland and Britain where Gaelic languages were spoken, one of the great spring festivals was Beltane, which by at least the Early Middle Ages was marked with the lighting of bonfires. Although very likely observed by pre-Christian communities, the celebration of Beltane persevered into the modern era, while in many English-speaking regions, it was “May Day” that was celebrated at this time of year. These were festivals with no overt Christian meaning, and yet were celebrated by generation upon generation of people who no doubt considered themselves to be good Christians.
The pre-Christian religions of Europe have exerted a considerable influence over a family of new religions that emerged in the twentieth century. These religions are collectively known as modern Paganism, an illustration of how their practitioners have reclaimed the historically negative term “pagan” and reappropriated it for contemporary use. Modern Pagans have established their own spring festivals, often modelled heavily on those from the past. By far the largest of the modern Pagan religions is Wicca, which typically involves the celebration of eight annual festivals, collectively termed the “Wheel of the Year.” These festivals, called “Sabbats,” include three celebrations of springtime. The first, Imbolc, marks the earliest stirrings of spring amid the cold winter of early February. The second, Ostara, observes the spring equinox, the mid-point between the winter and summer solstices. The third is Beltane, celebrating the emergence of May and the oncoming of summer. In this way, people living in our increasingly urbanised world still find ways of looking upon spring as a time of joy and celebration.