Beltane, also known as May Day, is celebrated on May 1, which is about halfway between the spring equinox (Ostara) and summer solstice (Litha) in the northern hemisphere. It represents fertility, the peak of spring and the coming of summer. Although Beltane rituals and celebrations had mostly died out toward the mid-20th century, some of its customs have seen a revival over the last few decades.
What is Beltane?
Historically, Beltane was a Gaelic fire festival that took place throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. Ritualistic festivals were held within communities to bless the herds, crops, and people, and fire was an important symbolic means of protection from natural and supernatural harm. Not only was fire used to ward off evil spirits, but it was also a way to honor the waxing light half of the year and the intensifying power of the sun.
Beltane is the third Sabbat in the Wheel of the Year, between Ostara and Litha. It’s directly across from Samhain on the wheel, and like its counterpoint, both Sabbats are said to be a time when the veil separating the world of the living from the realm of the dead is thin. This means spirits are more active and nature energy is more potent.
The Origin of Beltane
The Beltane fire festival marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season when cattle and other livestock were driven out to the summer pastures. Protection rituals were performed to appease the spirits. All hearth fires and candles were to be doused before a holy bonfire was lit, usually on a mountain or hilltop. Fires in the home were then relit using flames from the Beltane fire. People would walk around and between bonfires, often leading their cattle through the smoke and rub ashes on the fur since smoke and ash from the Beltane fires were said to have protective properties. A feast was usually part of the celebration and featured animals such as lambs that were sacrificed for Beltane.
Other rituals took place in various parts of the region. Yellow May flowers were used to decorate doors, window, byres, and livestock. Cattle were sometimes brought to “fairy forts” to have their blood collected and poured into the earth with prayers for the herd’s safety. The May Bough, which was usually hawthorn, holly, rowan, or sycamore) was decorated with flowers, ribbons, shells, and other trimmings and placed inside or outside the house. A similar practice involved decorating the May Bush, although the shrub would remain where it was planted. Thorny trees shrubs were preferable since they were believed to be associated with fairies and spirits.
While the early pagan Beltane is primarily centered around the symbolism of fire, the Wiccan Beltane is a more modern melding of practices from different cultures, including the Germanic / English May Day festival, which placed more emphasis on fertility and featured rituals such as maypole dancing. Weddings and ritualistic sex are important aspects, although Beltane can be used to focus on strengthening friendships and familial relationships if you aren’t in a romantic stage of your life.
Arranging the Altar
Beltane’s altar reflects new life, fire, passion, and rebirth. Spring colors are always a good choice, although while Ostara’s spring palette tends to feature subtler pastels, Beltane’s color scheme is more vibrant. Think of the bright yellow daffodils and forsythia, and the deep purple lilacs, and the bold pink redbuds. Beltane’s spring colors can be incorporated with an altar cloth, ribbons, and freshly cut spring flowers.
In the spirit of fertility, you can add seeds, fruit, flowering branches, herbs, antlers, acorns, samaras, and other symbols. Wreaths and crowns made of flowers make a great addition. You can also decorate a May Bough for your altar.
Fire is an important symbol for Beltane, so consider adding candles to your altar. The more the better (safely)!
Lighting a bonfire is one of the most well-known traditions for Beltane. If you’re able to safely do so, gather friends and/or family around a bonfire. Whether you dance, or meditate, or just sit and talk, the act of uniting around the fire is what’s important for Beltane.
Hunting for wildflowers is another Beltane tradition. It’s customary to gather yellow flowers, tie them together into small bunches, and leave them in front of the doors and windows to protect the home.
Leave an offering for the earth, fairies, and nature spirits. It may be in the form of fruits or flowers, or if you enjoy spending time in the kitchen, you can bake a seasonal treat.
Decorate a maypole. This one is especially fun to do with the kids!
Celebrate the sensuality and fertility of the season with ritualistic sex (not for kids). If you have a private outdoor space, you can bless your garden by making love under the stars. Beltane is a powerful time to try to conceive or simply just bring more passion into your life. However you choose to celebrate with your lover, be mindful and intentional. Feed each other strawberries and chocolate. Drink champagne. Listen to sensual music. Anoint and massage each other with essential oils. Surround yourselves with candlelight. Burn sensual incense. Make every move a passionate one.
Spend time connecting with nature. Make skin-on-earth contact in the form of earthing (also known as grounding). Embark on a hike or go to the beach. Pay close attention to the seasonal changes happening around you. Be conscious of what you take and leave behind; make sure there are enough flowers for the pollinators, and don’t leave any litter.
Dance! You can dance around a maypole if you wish, but simply moving your body to the rhythm will suffice. Let the drums take you away…
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Below are a few traditional recipes to celebrate Beltane.
BELTANE ANNOCKS (SCOTTISH OATCAKES)
1 1/2 c oatmeal
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 c hot water
1 tbsp butter (meat fat or bacon grease can be substituted if you want to stay truer to ancient tradition)
1. Mix the oatmeal, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.
2. Melt the butter and then drizzle it over the oats. Add the hot water. Stir the mixture until it forms a stiff dough.
3. Place the dough on a sheet of wax paper and knead thoroughly, then separate into two equal portions. Roll each one into a ball and use a rolling pin to flatten it to approximately 1/4″ thickness.
4. Cook the oatcakes on a griddle using medium heat until they become golden brown. Cut the rounds into quarters and serve. Enjoy!
2 c dandelion greens (can be substituted with arugula)
1 tbsp canola oil
1 tsp lemon juice
2 green onions
2 hardboiled eggs
1 c shredded cheddar cheese
Dandelion blossoms (optional)
**NOTE** Make sure the dandelions haven’t been treated with lawncare chemicals or weedkiller.
1. Whisk the oil and lemon juice in a small bowl.
2. Chop the green onions. Slice the cucumber, avocado, and hardboiled eggs.
3. Mix the greens, onions, cucumber, avocado, and cheese in a large bowl. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss to evenly distribute.
4. Garnish with dandelion blossoms and enjoy!
However you choose to celebrate Beltane, there truly is no “right way” or “wrong way.” Choose the practices that best apply to you and make them your new tradition with your own personal spin.
Do you have any special traditions you’d like to share? Please post in the comments!