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It was a typical Sunday-morning service at the Unitarian Universalist church on Wirt Road. Six people stood up and shared their joys and concerns -- a little boy celebrated two first places at a karate tournament, and a 35-year-old lit a candle for his late wife. The small sandbox was filled with flaming white candles. While a basket was passed during the offering, the pianist played "It's May, it's May, the lusty month of May" from Camelot.
With a wreath of fake blue daisies in her ink-black hair, 51-year-old Mary LeBlanc went up to the microphone. A member of the church, the Wiccan woman was in charge of the May Day festivities. Mary picked up a boom box and started the procession outdoors. When she hit the play button something that sounded like a Sousa march filled the air, then switched into music more akin to Lord of the Dance.
"Oss Oss We Oss!" Mary cried. She asked the children and the congregants to join in. "Oss Oss We Oss!" They chanted while reading their programs. They shouted, "Unite and unite and let us unite / for summer is a-coming today / and whither we are going we all will unite / in the merry morning of May."
It was Beltane. Held on May Eve, halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, it's the second most important Wiccan holiday. It's the time when winter meets summer and darkness meets light. Beltane is the counterpart to Samhain (Halloween). Pagans believe that on these two sabbats the veil between the earth and the otherworld is the thinnest. On Halloween, ghosts can visit the living, but on Beltane, the living can visit the dead. Halloween is about death, and Beltane is about creating new life.
Beltane means "fire of Bel," the Celtic god of light. The fertility festival celebrates the coming of the summer sun. Of course, it was cloudy and cool on the day they chose to celebrate warmth. But as the congregation marched outside to the wooded patch behind the church, the sun emerged. Someone beat a snare drum, and another guy banged on a conga drum like Ricky Ricardo did when he sang "Babaloo."
"We're pretty conventional," said nonpagan Unitarian John Haberman, "but we let the pagans loose every once in a while."
The Unitarian congregation encompasses people of all religions. Among the Jews and Christians there's a handful of pagans, like Mary and 18-year-old Amy Knight, the May Queen. Unitarians believe in religious freedom and that people can learn something from every religion. They take customs they like from existing religions and create their own traditions. May Day celebrations are fun and outdoors and a happy childhood memory for many of the participants.
Not all of the churchgoing pagans are out of the broom closet, so they aren't named here. Amy and her mother, Eberle Knight, became Wiccan six years ago when they started taking circle lessons together. Amy said she has always had strong pagan leanings -- she has howled at the moon since she was two. (Her nickname is Wolfie.) Amy likes the freedom of being Wiccan and the fact that pagans don't have a set dogma to follow or strict beliefs. It's not like being on Charmed, she said. She doesn't cast spells or kill warlocks. "Basically," Amy said, "you just have to be good to other people." Amy is an outgoing, talkative teenager who wants to be a veterinarian. She looks a lot like Glenda the Good Witch.
A dozen people, all Unitarians and some of them pagans, gathered around the maypole with pink, peach and purple ribbons. At the foot of each ribbon was a basket of silk spring flowers.
"We don't fit!" someone complained.
A voice shouted back: "Just stretch the kids." The kids giggled.
Mary screamed for attention. "I hope you all remember 'Here we go round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush,' " she sang, "because we're going to use the same tune." They just switched "mulberry bush" to "merry maypole." People checked their programs.
During the first verse, they held hands and galloped around the circle à la "Ring Around the Rosie." For the second verse, Mary said to "make like you're picking flowers." She bent down and demonstrated. For the third verse, she told people to stomp the ground.
"You're supposed to stomp the earth to wake it up," Mary explained. "In Texas, spring has a long time been here, but in England they're still trying to wake it up."
Beltane originated hundreds of years ago in Celtic Ireland. All hearth fires were extinguished the night before May Day, and a druid lit a fresh fire in the center of the village. Bonfires burned throughout the British Isles, welcoming the return of life and fertility after a dead, dark winter. At dawn people relit their house fires with flames from the village bonfire. Traditionally, Beltane commemorated the time when people had just finished planting their crops; farmers wanted the sun to shine and make the food grow. So people lit fires and prayed that the land would be fertile. Once the embers died down, they were spread among the crops. The Celts also wanted people to be fertile, so women who wanted to get pregnant and young married couples jumped the flames. People stayed up all night dancing in the fields, "a maying," to help the vegetables grow. The next morning, the pagans gathered and danced around the maypole.