For many people, the mention of May Day instantly brings to mind the image of a ribbon-festooned Maypole. We know that people are supposed to dance around it to celebrate the departure of winter, but how many of us have ever actually tried?
Watching from the outside of the circle as authentically costumed reenactors at a Renaissance Faire weave gracefully in and out to some sprightly traditional tune, one might be pardoned for feeling a bit intimidated. With a lot of frisking bodies participating, the pattern of the dance looks much more complicated than it really is, and the spiraled warp and weft of colored ribbons against the pole when it’s all done seem too perfect to be attempted by amateurs.
But the truth of the matter is that Maypole-dancing is something that even little kids can do, with minimal instruction. To participate in the classic dance pattern, called the Grand Chain, all you need to be able to do is tell left from right (admittedly a challenge for some) and count up to two. Yes, those Pagans of Old Europe were way ahead of the curve on the analog-versus-digital question.
The Maypole dancers count off by twos, then half of them face sunwise (clockwise) and the other half widdershins (counterclockwise). When the music starts, you move forward – preferably with a skipping step – passing the people coming at you first on the left, then on the right. You also alternate whether you duck under the oncoming dancer’s ribbon or raise your own ribbon to let him or her duck under.
It takes about 30 seconds to learn, even if you’re a hopeless klutz. It’s good exercise, and when it’s all done, you get to admire your handiwork: a colorful woven pattern of ribbons snuggled up to the pole. If your caller has enough faith in you and wants to give another batch of dancers a go, you might have to reverse direction and unravel the weave, but by then you’ll be an old hand at it.
“Of what use is this bit of arcane knowledge?” you ask. “Where will I ever get to put it into practice?” Oh, but you have learned it just in time: The 23rd annual Beltane Festival is coming this Saturday to Stone Mountain Farm in Tillson, halfway between New Paltz and Rosendale: home to the Center for Symbolic Studies (CSS), which turns Jungian studies of mythic archetypes into excuses for exuberant play. The Beltane Festival always features a Maypole, and anyone who wishes can join in. This is your big chance.
“And what is a Beltane, anyway?” you add, bemused. Beltane is May Day. In the Celtic Wheel of the Year, it’s one of the Cross-Quarter Days, halfway around the Wheel from Samhain or Halloween, and just about halfway between the Quarter Days of the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice. In Germany they call it Walpurgisnacht.
It’s a fire festival, honoring the solar deity Bel, returned from his winter wanderings. Depending on which tradition you’re consulting, it marks the day when the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess reaches full womanhood, or the wedding day of the Goddess and her consort, or the day when the Oak King of summer overcomes the Holly King of winter. It’s also the time when the “May” or hawthorn is in bloom, and single lads and lasses steal off to the woods before dawn to cut flowering branches of May to bring home and decorate.
The Beltane Festival at CSS honors all these ancient symbolic interpretations and more with a long day of festivities. Besides Maypole dancing, there’s always a procession with horseback riders in full costume, giant puppets (including a really excellent dragon), a theatrical pageant (including a wedding), medieval seasonal songs like “Hal-An-Tow” and “Sumer Is I-cumen In,” lots of dance, games and ritualized combat.
The Vanaver Caravan and Youth Dance Company, Stone Mountain Masquers and Festival Singers typically keep the fun moving along, joined by a variety of guest performers. Strolling players, mimes, belly dancers, fools, jugglers and buskers of various stripes roam the gorgeous grounds, set in a huge meadow right at the foot of the northern Shawangunk cliffs. Crafts and food vendors abound, and at night there’s a big bonfire and music circle that anyone can join.
If you’re a Ren Faire regular, this may be your first chance of the season to shake the wrinkles out of your wenchwear or polish up your chainmail; and even if you don’t have an “official” costume, you’ll have more fun if you throw together some sort of outfit that gets you into a medieval mood. Leave your pets at home, though, and bear in mind that the Beltane Festival is a family-friendly, alcohol-free celebration. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own drinking vessels, or else hang onto the same disposable cup for reuse all day long.
The 23rd annual Beltane Festival, Renaissance & Craft Faire will be held on Saturday, April 27 (rain date April 28), with the gates opening at 12 noon and the music beginning at 1 p.m. The Procession and May Pageant kick off at 4 p.m., and the evening of “Music, Magical Entertainments & Fire Dancing” will continue until 10 p.m.
The price of admission is $12 for adults, $6 for seniors, teens and children over age 10. Tickets can be purchased in advance at www.eventbrite.com/event/5976488839?ref=ebtnebtckt or at the gate on Saturday. There will be a $15 charge for the limited parking areas at Stone Mountain Farm – located at the end of River Road Extension, west of Springtown Road – so carpooling is wise. Or you can take advantage of the free shuttle service from the Tillson School, where parking is ample and free. The last shuttle will leave the site at 11 p.m.
For more information, call (845) 658-8540 or visit www.symbolicstudies.org.
Beltane Festival, Renaissance & Craft Faire, Saturday, April 27, 1-10 p.m., $12/$6, $15 on-site parking, Center for Symbolic Studies, Stone Mountain Farm, 475 River Road Extension, Tillson; free parking/shuttle, Tillson School, 56 Grist Mill Road, Tillson; (845) 658-8540, www.symbolicstudies.org.