Welcome to Sweden, staunch home of the Lutheran church as is displayed by the relatively large number of religious red letter days in our calendar. Not that Swedes are particularly religious – not these days. Neither are we pagan, but some rituals are hard to kill, and no matter Anselm (our apostle) no matter the Reformation, the cathechisms, the strict Conventicle Acts, in Sweden some traditions simply can’t be stamped out.
Harking back to roots far more ancient than the Christian church, we still welcome spring in a most pagan manner, a throwback to the old feast of Beltane. In Sweden, this is celebrated the last day of April (we call it Valborg), and we light huge bonfires and sing songs that praise the advent of sun and warmth and the coming summer. Chances are the last day in April will be cold – even very cold. But the evenings are light – where I live twilight lingers to well beyond 21:00 p.m. – and all around are signs of returning life.
The birches are decorated with minuscule leaves of brightest green, the shrubs shift into an emerald haze, and everywhere tits and blackbirds and lapwings and larks and … well, birds in general – call and hoot that spring is here and so are they. In the woods anemones poke their heads of brightest white through drifts of russet coloured leaves, the lake shores are here and there still edged with ice, but a couple of swans sail by on the deep blue of the open waters.
Over by the bonfire the songs have acquired a riotous tone as sausages burn to crisp over the open flames. Couples snog, or hold hands, or hug each other close, and the air is filled with the impressive sound of the male choirs singing in spring. That’s what we call it; “Singing in spring”.
We have books full of these spring songs, all about the melting drifts of snow, the return of the sun, of warmth, of hope that soon the ground break out in full flower. Songs that rather unabashedly praise that first deity of human life; the sun.
Beltane was a major feast day for the Celts – a fire feast, and as described above that tradition lives on up here in the north. Having said that, as far as I know there weren’t all that many Celts up here, but seeing as they were a trading people I assume their cultural influence was massive – plus feasts such as Beltane, Samhain, Midsummer are probably rooted in an even murkier past.
The advent of spring was of utmost importance for our ancestors. Today, 3-7% of the population in the developed world are farmers, producing huge excesses of food they can sell to the rest of us. (Plus we import; tons and tons do we import. Consider the chilling thought that all these developing countries that presently source our food were to say “no, we don’t want to”. What are we to do? Go back to living off Mother Nature? As if we can – we’ve forgotten how!) A century ago, roughly 50-60% of the population had their outcome from the agricultural sector. Before the Industrial Revolution, 80% depended on the land – and what little surplus they produced was sold to acquire necessities such as an iron plough, or salt. For them, spring was the difference between life and death, and a spring as dry and cold as the one we’ve experienced this year would have led to starvation – and death.
In celebration of this glorious day, this period of purple twilights that fill me with restless joy I am going to take a page from my ancestor’s books and spend the day planting. Lucky for me, I don’t have to plant potatoes (back breaking labour when it was done by hand) or wheat. No, I’m going to plant flowers!
Come evening I will stand by the bonfire (it’s just me and my husband here, so it will be a very private bonfire) and sing. My husband will probably at most hum, which is a good thing as he can’t hold a tune to save his life. But I will stand on our jetty, open my arms wide to the returning light and praise the sun. Life is a miracle, an eternal cycle of dark and light. It behoves us to at times remember just how blessed we are to live on this green planet of ours. It behoves us to keep in mind that we are but the caretakers of a delicate sphere of life, as ephemeral in time and space as a soap bubble.
I’d like to end this post with one of my favourite poems – an ode of joy and gratitude for the world that surrounds us, in this case directed to God, but it could just as well be directed to Mother Nature. I don’t know why it always springs to the forefront of my head this season of the year, maybe it’s the sheer exuberance in it that speaks to me.
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of coupled-colour like a brinded cow;
For rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced; fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades; their gear and tackle and trim
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 89)
Happy Beltane, everyone! May the day be long and bright, may the sun warm your skin, may a soft breeze caress your cheek.