James Baldwin often referred to European-Americans as “the people who think they are white.” I used to think this was some kind of riddle. What does he mean “think”? I’d love to be anything other than white, but people of color taught me to stay in my lane. It’s not a choice or belief; we are white. What would we be if we weren’t?
Synergy’s Beltane helped me answer this question. As a Theta Delt, I wandered up the hill behind our backyard to find a magical mystery unlike anything else at Stanford. Music, facepaint, random acts of queerness, and of course, a freshly wrapped maypole — it was my kind of utopia, a welcome antidote to Greek life.
The next year, Beltane was on the same day as Blackfest and TDX’s Cinco de Mayo. Only one of these involved people reveling in a culture to which they had no legitimate claim. After protests, TDX scrapped our “Latin” tradition; campus lost nothing. But today, Stanford risks losing a true cultural touchstone, because Synergy is bailing on Beltane.
Last year, they instead held a “Lovely Spring Day.” According to an email sent to alums, the house felt that calling it “Beltane” was “appropriating practices and experiences that are not our own.” It’s unclear if anyone actually felt their culture was being appropriated. The email says that the Synners who started the tradition were pagan, and last year, at least one pagan resident was “in favor of keeping Beltane as it was.” Still, the house chose to neuter the event. There was facepaint and music, but no maypole.
Unless there are no longer many Synergy residents of European descent, it’s hard to see why Beltane couldn’t be “their own.” Beltane is an ancient tradition first observed by the Celts, a pagan indigenous group whose descendants today belong to many nationalities.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes that colonization was “already practiced if not perfected” long before the pilgrims left Europe. The Celts, for instance, were violently assimilated to Christian nations like Ireland and France. Those who retained pagan customs were persecuted by inquisitions and burned alive as witches. Beltane still exists thanks to those who kept its flame burning, even when they were afraid.
Most of us who celebrate Beltane today didn’t learn it from our parents, but that doesn’t mean it’s not “our own.” Tons of Americans have Celtic roots, and when we observe Beltane, we’re rekindling a bond with our ancestors. This isn’t just valid – it’s vital.
I’m part Irish and Welsh. Wrapping a maypole, I feel nourished by the sense that I’m dancing in my ancestors’ footsteps. In order to become white and receive white privilege, many European immigrants to the US gave up their traditions. Today, many “white” people feel culturally empty, which explains why we appropriate so hungrily from others. Perhaps if white people sought meaning and healing in our own ancestral ways, we wouldn’t burden people of color by expecting them to provide those things for us.
These days, I live in a pagan community, where Beltane is the biggest day of the year. Folks of diverse ethnicities merge their own pagan customs into a festival of magical abundance. We do our best to revive suppressed traditions.
Celtic ancestry is so diffuse that it’s hard to say who can claim Beltane as their own. Honestly, I don’t think it matters. You can’t “appropriate” from European cultures, for the same reason you can’t be racist against white people: in this country, we have the power.
Ijeoma Oluo defines appropriation as the “exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture.” If I show up to Blackfest in cornrows, it’s insulting because my ancestors kept Africans in chains. If someone who’s Italian or Cherokee wants to throw beet juice at Beltane, does anyone care at all?
Something important is being lost when Beltane gets rebranded as “Lovely Spring Day.” It feels like my culture is being whitewashed again, stripped of its life-giving qualities. Synergy’s Beltane was a true ritual, performed with respect by people reaching toward their roots. We were all indigenous once. And the people who think that they’re just “white” would do well to get in touch with their ancestral traditions, which are as numerous and colorful as the ribbons on a maypole.
— Delilah Friedler ’15
Contact Delilah Friedler at delilahtov ‘at’ stanford.edu.