I had a vision this morning, while driving through the apple orchards. In my vision, Winchester, Virginia’s Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival was started by Irish and German farmers as an ode to the ancient celebrations of their ancestors. I poured over what I could find on the internet about The Bloom, as the festival is also called. I asked my co-workers who commonly attend the festivities and could not find information about the ancestry of the people who started the festival in 89 years ago. I’m confident, they were European. So I looked at the events schedule and found many clues as to The Bloom’s connection to ancient cross-quarter celebrations of Beltane, which is undoubtedly connected to Walpurgis Night, celebrated all over Germanic Europe.
Walpurgis Night is still celebrated in Germany and Sweden on the night of April 30th with bon fires, singing, drinking and dancing. Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival was originally a one day/night event and then bloomed and became what it is today, a nearly 10 day celebration. Beltane is making a comeback in Ireland and the UK and traditionally began on April 30th and continued into the first week of May. Images of children dancing around a Maypole with ribbons are what most think of when the subject of Beltane or May Day comes up. Beltane is, however, much more about spring and the people’s hope for a good harvest.
Legend has it that Beltane was the first Celtic holiday for the church to outlaw because it was a socially acceptable time for married individuals to choose another partner for the length of the celebration. It was also socially acceptable for priestesses and priests to choose a partner for the celebration as well.
Although “celebration of fertility” has become code for sex in neo-pagan circles, Beltane was always a celebration of human fertility and sexuality. More importantly, Beltane celebrates human fertility’s connection to the fertility of the land and human sexuality’s connection to the success of planted crops and foraged edible plants.
In a Beltane celebration, the May Queen represents the manifestation of Mother Earth and her Green Man, the representation of man’s place as an essential part of the natural world. Together, they remind us of human sexuality’s connection to the success of the harvest and the continuation of the human race. One of the oldest traditions of Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival is the Coronation of the Queen Shenandoah, Shenandoah Valley’s May Queen.
Traditionally, a stag was killed for the Beltane feasting but no stag is killed for The Bloom. You will find the Stag Luncheon, where Winchester’s beloved single men are catered to by women in bikinis (I hear there are strippers too); a current day celebration of human sexuality, if you will.
A friend reminded me that most of the apple harvest, in years past, would have been used to make hard cider. Although that is no longer the case, merrymaking with alcohol remains.
What remains of the traditional bon fire? You will not find them in town. You will find the Firefighters Parade, an honoring and celebration of current day fire keepers. While the fire fighters are honored in town for keeping the community safe, people in the woods burn their fires, unsupervised, eating stag and doe and drinking homemade spirits.