Retaining Our Roots & Merry Midsummer Festivals

How quickly spring seems to have shifted into summer this year, seemingly with no hesitation at all. The cherry blossom and wisteria have vanished and now, on this island, we have been left in that lingering transition period of faded spring flowers but not-quite-yet-summer-blooms. The first of May marks Beltane in the Gaelic calendar, the pastoral beginning of summer and this gives way to a flurry of summer celtic-revival and Pagan inspired festivals celebrating the coming of the warmer months. In the Gaelic calendar, there are four major festivals; Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane & Lughnasadh, one for each season with both Beltane (beginning of summer) & Samhain (beginning of winter) being the most prominent. The celebration of such festivals haven’t so much as endured but rather experienced a revival since the 20th century, particularly in Celtic regions of the Kingdom such as Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Cornwall & Wales.

According to Folklorists and historians, the original records of Beltane are thought to come from Ireland and describe rituals that were believed to protect cattle, crops and people by creating a special ‘Beltane fire’ from which the household fires would be lit and maintained. People were believed to leap through these flames, pass their cattle between the bespelled bonfires for protection and gather for large feasts where the people would decorate themselves and their doors and homes with with the yellow May Flowers to evoke the protective fire. Some of the feast food was offered to the Aos Si (the fairy people or supernatural race) in order to please them. It was believed that it was around both Beltane and Samhain that the Aos Si were most active which falls inline with some of our modern Halloween lore & beliefs in certain sectors that it’s during these phases of the year that the spirit world touches or comes near to ours. 

In the 1980s, Edinburgh began celebrating the festival in the city at its famous Calton Hill. The Beltane fire society formed and each year on April 30th, the city comes alive with fire, myth and drama in a spectacular arts & cultural festival inspired by the folklore of Beltane.

In Cornwall where I grew up, there have always been a constant flow of seasonal festivals inspired by Celtic lore. Although we don’t so much widely observe the popular and well known Gaelic festivals such as Beltane and Samhain in our streets, we have our own equivalents in which involve the entire community and borrow greatly from the Celtic traditions, myths and enchanting landscape that the county holds so dearly and with such pride. These festivals blend the modern with the traditional and are embedded in our culture and seasonal calendar, for even the most culturally unaware and disinterested teenager will be involved in some way or another with the shenanigans of Helston Flora day. Flora day is our own festival marking the beginning of summer and held in the market town of Helston at the gateway to the Lizard.

For this day each year, the houses of the town decorate their doors and garden walls with beautiful wreaths of flowers so that the streets are spilling with colour and blooms - a spring and more natural equivalent of the modern christmas tradition of hanging electric light displays on the front of your house. Lilly of the Valley is the traditional flower of this festival and young boys and girls will be adorned in white, dancing together in the streets to the songs played by the marching band, flowers in their hair.

Perhaps one of Cornwall’s biggest celtic-revival events however is based further west in the seaside town of Penzance. Golowan (The Cornish word for Mid-Summer) is a week long cultural & arts festival that has brought back to life so many of the ancient customs such as lighting and gathering around bonfires, parading an Obby-Oss (Penglaz) fireworks, lighting torches and carrying giant sculptures & lanterns crafted by the local children through the streets along with a marching band and decorated dancers. The original Golowan, celebrated before its abolition in the late 19th century was very much similar to Beltane in that fires were believed to ward off evil spirits and misfortune and the people would leap between the flames or dance the embers in order to secure their safety from such darkness. These days, although Golowan promotes and celebrates much of the Celtic traditions and stories, it’s expanded throughout the town with a funfair that spills onto the quayside by the iconic art deco lido, live music and open air theatre is performed throughout the town and market stalls selling a wide variety of colourful wares & local food produce line the cobbled sloping streets.

The festival attracts over ten thousand visitors each year and has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. It’s littler known more austere mid-winter equivalent, Montol, takes place of the 21st December which has a much more Celtic and local vibe, held in the dark of night around a bonfire that overlooks the twinkling lights of the sleepy sea town. My home county, undoubtedly like many other of the Celtic regions on this island holds firmly onto its cultural festivals that are seeing an increasing popularity and finding their place in modern day culture. As we as a society yearn to reconnect with our roots and nature, we find ourselves fascinated with these ancient festivals and traditions that give us a glimpse into another realm - one of whimsy and half-magic- ones that find their origins in a time where the people were ruled entirely by the natural world and its cycles.

Golowan festival takes place between 23rd - 28th June in Penzance, Cornwall. Other similar festivals in the county include Helston Flora day (8th May) Padstow Obby-Oss day (May 1st) and the St Ives September festival.

SummerSarah Porteus