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Apr 25, 2012

Are you a Celt?

According to Éloi Johanneau of the Académie celtique, established during Napoleon's rule  (John T. Koch, Celtic Culture, a Historical Encyclopedia), the answer is, unequivocally, yes. But I think we can safely assume he wasn't entirely, shall we say, objective. The answer is, if you come from Indo-European stock, probably yes.

While many, if not most, of the Christian or, at least, Catholic, holidays that are celebrated have been stolen—er—appropriated from pre-existing Celtic rituals or observances (see my column from the March-April bulletin), we also have some remnants of observed holidays and festivals that do not necessarily have a 'clear' Christian correspondence.

The celebrations that in modern times have come to be known as May Day (e.g., Beltane, in Gaelic, Kala Hañv in Breton Celtic) represents one such holiday. One of the two most important days in the Celtic year, the associated rituals are as interesting as they are (to most of us) mystifying. Much of what is celebrated today is of a more recent nature (i.e., Lady Day) than what the original Celts likely observed, which was the half of the year associated with summer.

The main ritual, started on May Day eve: Fire. Bonfires were lit as symbols of purification and perhaps to honor the Celtic god, Bel. Although not much is known about him, Bel was most certainly a solar god. According to Miranda Green (The Gods of the Celts), solar deities, probably mostly local to individual tribes but common across the Celtic world, were extremely popular. To appease the local deity, cattle were driven between double bonfires in a purification ritual. Dancing around (or over) the fires was common, and 'dancing in the May' is still celebrated in Germany today. There are also fertility rites associated with this day that could account for some of the medieval and later efforts at repression.
In Germany, May Day is a national holiday honored in political rallies across the country celebrating labor. An older tradition, as in other parts of Europe, is for a young man to fell a sapling (usually birch in Germany) and, decorated with ribbons, place it in front of his sweetheart's home. Note: in leap years (2012), this task falls to the maidens

Also in Germany, Walpurgisnacht, named for the much beloved St. Walpurga, is celebrated  both historically and  contemporary as a witches' sabbath (see, for example, Goethe's Faust), with the main festivities taking place on the Brocken (1141 m), the highest of the Harz Mountains. Closer to home, you can celebrate this event at the Witches' Market and Festival at Burg Satzvey from April 29-May 1 ( You won't need your maypole, but don't forget to take your broomstick.