The merry month of May is highly anticipated in the Village of Cumberland. Since 1888, Villagers have gathered on Victoria Day (Queen Victoria’s birthday) for a civic celebration unparalleled on Vancouver Island.
When I arrived in Cumberland 28 years ago, I spent my first Victoria Day on the roof of the old Nakanishi building, drinking iced vodka with an eccentric purveyor of local antiques, watching my new world roll by in the annual Empire Day parade.
A royal procession of young villagers was part of a long parade to Village Park, where several Maypoles had been erected. Children gathered, poised and ready. The needle dropped on a scratched record and God Save the Queen began to play; people around me began to sing. Then the children began to dance.
I was fascinated. I love ritual and pageantry; I grew up in theatre and at Renaissance Fairs. I was excited my new home hosted such an elaborate event and I felt the indomitable spirit of Cumberland flow through me. But I knew there was more to this dance than a tribute to a dead queen of a colonial Empire. Something ran deeper in the blood of these villagers.
The Maypole originated with ancient agricultural rituals of Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans—evolving into the Iron Age Germanic festival of Walpurgis and the Celtic festival of Beltane. These celebrations marked the transition from winter to summer and ensured the fertility of crops, livestock, and people.
At the heart of the celebration was the lighting of the Beltane Eve bonfires. These fires embodied the power of the sun to cleanse and renew after the dark months of winter. Farmers would drive cattle between bonfires to protect them before putting them out to pasture. People would dance and leap over the flames. It was a night of great celebration.
As the sun rose on Beltane, people would wash their faces in the morning dew to ensure good luck and health in the year ahead. They would then prepare for the day’s festivities, including the Maypole dance and the crowning of the new May Queen.
The Maypole was made from a freshly cut tree and set in the centre of the community. The pole represented the masculine element; dancing, and wrapping the Maypole in ribbon and foliage, represented the feminine element. At the finale, the May Queen was crowned, representing the maiden (or “lover”) aspect of the Celtic goddess Brigid, who was ruler of fire and fertility—young, bold and curious.
Fire and fertility. Renewal of community and connection. It’s not a shock that this ritual was forced to adapt in response to colonization and Christianization. The ancient rituals were gradually dampened (and driven underground) by church and crown attempting to sever links with the pagan past.
In the 1600s, Beltane celebrations even became viewed as scandalous. Oliver Cromwell described them as “a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness,” and went so far as to outlaw them. A more muted version of the tradition persisted, and eventually travelled with European settlers to a little coal-mining town on the edge of a faraway continent.
I hope our Beltane traditions continue in Cumberland. I also hope that we reconnect with the roots of this celebration (like they have at the Beltane Fire Festival in Scotland) and examine the rituals and practices more closely. We can leave behind the parts that no longer reflect our values, and reclaim the ones that help us to build stronger, more connected communities.