April opens with the festival of fools, April Fool’s Day or All Fools Day. A time for Loki and his fellow trickster gods, a day for tricks, hoaxes and practical jokes the world over. They must cease at noon or the joke will be upon the joker, time boundaries surround festivals with defined beginnings and endings.
The day itself has deceiving origins. A copying error in a tale by Chaucer, a Robin Hood legend or a switching of calendars all proposed. But spring renewal festivals with disorder and misrule occur worldwide and through history; the mediaeval ‘Feast of Fools’ and the Roman festival of Hilaria. The 13th day of the Persian calendar (falling around this time) has all the unruliness and trickery, and dating from the 6th century B.C., surely the oldest of all prank days.
Working our own wheel suggested a placement prior to Equinox/Ostara. The god is young, playful and mischievous, a lover of games. April Fool’s Day is most fitting for marking his final moments as a wild, untamed youth, before his first sexual union and initiation into manhood.
Mid-April is the time of ‘return’, illustrated by British customs involving the cuckoo, whose return signaled the full coming of spring and the arrival of warmer days. Festivals marked the reappearance of this bird, “the merry cuckow, messenger of spring.” (Edmund Spenser). Most ‘Cuckoo Fairs’ are consigned to history, but many have been resurrected along with their legends of origin. At Heffle an elderly lady, ‘Dame Heffle’, opened a basket to release a cuckoo, which flew into the skies of England to bring warm weather. At Towednack a parishioner went to put a log upon his hearth fire, when a cuckoo flew out of it. “Opening the gate” at Downton lets the cuckoo in. The Cuckoo Princess role here is recent but the original fair may have had pagan origins, complete with Cuckoo King. At Marsden the community were so overjoyed upon cuckoo’s return, they built a high wall to prevent its leaving and taking the sunshine with it.
Esoteric themes are found above. The cuckoo is harbinger or carrier of the increasing power of the sun. A ‘keeper of the flame’ (Dame Heffle) releases the warmth into the world with suggestions of sympathetic magick. The log may heat a single room but what is released from within may warm a whole land. A doorway is opened and a guest enters, bringing a warming gift. An attempt, however futile, to imprison the incarnate power of the sun, so as to prevent a return to the cold, dark days of winter.
It is British-centric to suggest the cuckoo alone for this totemic role and April is not the only month of return. What is your ‘cuckoo’? A bird, an animal, a shoal of fish, a tree or flower? What signifies the strengthening of the sun for you and your community?
Our cuckoo has a trickster aspect, engaging in brood parasitism, laying its eggs in the nests of other birds to the detriment of the rightful brood. The deceived host, rearing the cuckoo chick as its own, wastes its energies trying to feed the voracious cuckoo chick. Male cuckoos are known to trick the unsuspecting victims by luring them away, whilst his consort lays her egg in the nest.
The 24th is St. Mark’s Eve, foreshadowing the feast day of Mark the Evangelist. According to custom, for three years in a row a person should sit in the porch of a church, between 11p.m. and 1a.m. On the third occasion they will see passing by, the spectral forms of those parishioners to die in the year ahead. Variations suggest the observing of coffins or headless corpses. The watcher should fast or circle the church before assuming their vigil. There is a similar custom associated with Martinmas, the feast day of St. Martin (11th November). A person standing to the rear of the church during the Martinmas service, will see auras of light around the heads of those in the congregation, who will not see the following year out. It is an interesting parallel. In our Gregorian calendar, St Mark’s Eve occurs a week before Beltane, Martinmas falling only eleven days after Samhain. Perhaps St. Mark and St Martin stand as gatekeepers for the two halves of the year, summer and winter, light and dark, samos and gaimos. Are they guardians/protectors? The names Mark and Martin have martial origins. Mark (Markus) is derived from Martkos, ‘to be consecrated to the god Mars’, Martin (Martinus) meaning, ‘of Mars’.
Walpurgis Night or Walpurgisnacht (30th) concludes the month’s festivities.
In the Czech Republic winter ends, with the lighting of bonfires and the burning of witch effigies and broomsticks. Estonians welcome spring with fancy dress, street processions and house calling. In Finland it is a prank night, mead is drunk and the following day sees large, extravagant picnics. In Germany there are bonfires and tricks, but this is the night of the witches, who gather on Brocken mountain to party with the pagan gods and welcome in the new season. In Sweden there are the carnival parades, bonfires, pranks and the decorating of households with greenery.
While celebrations endure across Scandinavia, The Baltic and Central Europe, it is a shame they play so little a role in the English speaking world and neopagan/wiccan community. Walpurgis Night itself, is named after Walpurga, an English missionary nun who attained sainthood and is most renowned for her vociferous condemnation of witchcraft.
In the celebrations of Valborg, Vappu et al, the parallels with All Hallows Eve are evident; costumes and bonfires, partying, pranks and petty vandalism. It is Beltane Eve and such conduct is apt on the night before the wedding of the year. Turn your mind back to the last Stag Night (Bachelor/Bucks Party) or Hen Night (Bachelorette/Doe Party) you attended.