Last Tuesday was St. George’s Day in Austria, and in many other countries as well. While that seems, superficially speaking, just another day of the year dedicated to a saint, this day does have, believe it or not, significance in the Druidic/Pagan/Wiccan Wheel of the Year.
Not so much because of the saint, the dragon slayer – a more than questionable claim to fame – himself, but because of the day on which he’s remembered, April 23rd. And because of an old country saying in the Alps that cattle should be out on the pastures that day, the latest.
In the mountains that means going up to the higher altitude pastures, you know, where one certain Maria allegedly ran around singing ‘The hills are alive.’
There the cows can feed on clean and fresh grass mixed with all kinds of herbs with healing properties. Milk, cheese and butter from up there are just so much better, both in taste and nutrition.
While that alone is already an improvement to the cattle’s health, customs like brushing it with Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris, Beifuß) and other cleansing rituals are performed as well. The driving the animals up the mountains, decorated with their freshly polished bells in itself is part of the festivities. And then of course there is much eating, drinking, and singing at the destination, the Alpine hut.
Now consider some cattle customs in other Celtic countries, like on the British Isles, where animals are ushered through between two fires. This happens at Beltane, May 1st, though.
For the very same reason, mind you: cleansing the cattle after a long period of being in narrow, bug-infested stables, feeding on old hey. Not only that custom can be traced back to the olden Celtic days, but so can the driving up the cattle to the Alpine pastures.
But why, one might ask, on April 23rd and not on Beltane, May 1st? There are a number of reasons playing into this. First, the Celts didn’t know static months. Hence their reliance on the solstices and equinoxes for a calendar. Their months followed the cycle of the Moon. Therefore, Beltane and the other four Moon festivals were on different days each every year anyway. Other indicators in nature played a role as well, for example the blossoming of the hawthorn, to calculate when Beltane was. So, saying that Beltane is on May 1st nowadays is an approximation to begin with. Sometimes, though, in years with a mild winter and a warm spring, causing the hawthorn to blossom in early April, and a new Moon falling on the day that’s now April 23rd, then that may as well have been Beltane for that year.
Add to that several adjustments to the calendar, particularly the change from the Julian to the Gregorian, and you have a very likely scenario where parts of a festival that were celebrated on the same day originally began to veer apart and happen on different days today. The only indicator that links them may be an old and almost forgotten country saying.
But never belittle those ancient rules that farmers often still live by (even if they go to church every Sunday,) for those who grow and tend to our food are the ones really in the know.