Beltane, also known as May Day, is celebrated on May 1st, 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. This article will explore what Beltane is, its early origins, modern traditions, tips for your Beltane altar, and basic recipes to try.
What Is Beltane?
Historically, Beltane was a Gaelic fire festival that took place throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The word “Beltane” loosely translates into “bright fire.”
Ritualistic festivals were held within communities to bless the herds, crops, and people. 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 and the realm of the dead is thin. This means that spirits are more active and nature energy is more potent.
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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 between bonfires, often leading their cattle through the smoke and rubbing ashes on the fur since smoke and ash from the Beltane fires were said to have protective properties. On a more practical level, the fires were likely used to burn brush piles, thereby clearing more room for farmland and pastureland.
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, windows, 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.
• People wrote their wish on a ribbon and tied it around a tree (usually hawthorn, ash, or hickory) in the hopes that the gods would grant the wish.
• Dew that was gathered on Beltane was said to contain special healing properties for beauty and youthfulness.
• 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 shrubs were preferable since they were believed to be associated with fairies and spirits.
• Ritualistic sex was an important part of Beltane. To go “A Maying” and harvest flowers in the woods was synonymous with having casual sex in the forest. Partners often engaged in intercourse outdoors to better connect with nature. Children who were conceived during Beltane (and therefore born around Imbolc) were often known as “merry-be-gots” who had spiritual connections to the faerie realm.
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.
Especially predominant is the Germanic/English May Day festival, which placed more emphasis on fertility and featured rituals such as maypole dancing. Weddings and ritualistic sex are still important aspects, although Beltane can also be a time to focus on strengthening friendships and familial relationships if you aren’t in a romantic stage of your life.
Beltane also represents creativity and growth. We set intentions at Imbolc, planted the seeds toward those goals during Ostara when we planned our course of action, and now, Beltane is the time to advance even further by taking the next steps forward.
How to Decorate the Beltane Altar: Colors, Symbols, & Crystals
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, the deep-purple lilacs, and the bold pink redbuds. These spring colors can be incorporated with an altar cloth, ribbons, and freshly cut spring flowers.
Beltane’s predominant colors are white, red, and dark green.
In the spirit of fertility, you can add seeds, fruit, flowering branches, herbs, acorns, samaras, and other symbols to your altar. If you enjoy crafting, you can decorate a May Bough or weave small wreaths and crowns made of flowers. Creating these tributes is a great way to get kids involved and excited.
Common Beltane symbols include goats, bees, honeycombs, fairies, flower crowns, maypoles, baskets, antlers, lambs, rabbits, cattle, and of course, fire.
Since fire is an important symbol for Beltane, candles are a perfect addition to the altar. The more the better (safely)! Learn more about choosing the right candle colors for your intentions in this post.
The best crystals for Beltane are:
- Fire Quartz – rejuvenation, stimulation, focus, dispelling anxiety, clearing doubt and distractions
- Sunstone – light, life, energy, luck, prosperity, empowerment
- Carnelian – connected to the element of fire and the sacred flame
- Rose Quartz – love, friendship, romance, self-love
- Rhodonite – “stone of love,” passion, fertility, grounding energy, healing emotional scars
- Labradorite – connect with the psyche, dreams, creative muses, spiritual awakening
- Amethyst – spiritual protection, insight, self-reflection, shadow work
- Moss Agate – restoration, healing, rebirth, a connection with earth and plants
- Black Tourmaline – strength, stabilization, grounding, alleviating fear (onyx and obsidian are also good alternatives)
Beltane Rituals for Your May Day Celebration
Lighting a bonfire is one of the most well-known Beltane rituals. If you’re able to safely do so, gather friends and/or family around a bonfire. Whether you dance, meditate, or just sit and talk, the act of uniting around the fire is what’s important for Beltane.
Hunting for wildflowers is another tradition of Beltane. 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. You can also weave them into small wreaths or crowns.
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. Dancing is a Beltane ritual that has persisted for thousands of years. Let the drums take you away…
Be creative in whatever ways suit you best. Maybe it’s been a while since you wrote in your journal. Or your muses are encouraging you to write a poem or make music. Listen to them.
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Basic Beltane Recipes
Below are a few simple recipes to celebrate Beltane.
BELTANE BANNOCKS (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!
Did you know that you can eat hostas? They’re especially tasty in the spring as they break the soil in tight coils before they unfurl their leaves. Springtime hostas have a milder taste than asparagus, and they’re not as chewy. You can also eat hosta leaves in the summer, although they taste a bit more bitter. The leaves and buds are also edible. Any dish that would usually use asparagus or snow peas can be enjoyed with hostas instead.
Simply harvest, wash, and sautée in butter, garlic, and/or olive oil, and enjoy! Salt and pepper to taste. You can also get creative and add onions, mushrooms, potatoes, pasta, etc. Early May is the perfect time to harvest the early hosta shoots… a new seasonal favorite! (And don’t worry—hostas are hardy, so they’ll grow back after being cut.)
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!
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Award-winning fantasy author, freelance writer, spiritual explorer, and sole founder of Green Witch Lunar Witch. She created her first website in 2016 and published her first novel two years later. Sara spends most of her time writing, creating, and daydreaming.