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Beltane: Britain’s Ancient Festival is Making a Comeback

As numbers slump at modern music festivals, traditional gatherings such as Beltane are more popular than ever, says Victoria Lambert.

Last year, with friends and family, in a sloping field just off the busy A3 from London to Portsmouth, I experienced my first Beltain (more widely known as Beltane) – the ancient festival which marks the end of winter and the start of summer. Held at Butser Ancient Farm, an archaeological site, on paper it had looked like a charming low–key Celtic festival with a few folk bands and a hog roast.

It was so much more than that: dancing women in woad, waving antlers to ancient gods of fertility. Children wearing self-woven blossom and wicker May coronets roaming among picnickers. And, of course, the high point of the night – the burning of a specially built, 30ft-high Wicker Man, stuffed with scraps of paper on which we had written our hopes for the coming year. A large crowd, children perched on shoulders, pressed closer into the insistent heat for a better view as leaping flames licked the man’s torso and consumed his legs. And then he shuddered, buckled, and collapsed sideways down into the dark Hampshire earth. The Pagan watchers reveled in the grisly ritual. The Wicker Man is dead; summer is a-coming in. Afterwards, we all trooped home through a wet field, oddly elated.

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