Traditionally Celebrated May 1st
There are only two seasons in the Celtic Tradition: Summer and winter. Beltane is the first day of summer. It is traditionally celebrated from sunset April 30 until sunset May 1. It is also known as May Day.
The most well known of the Celtic Quarter days, Beltane, is the widest celebrated festival of our time. The Bale-Fire is the best-known symbol of this day. Even today, throughout traditionally Celtic lands, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, people light bonfires on the highest hills to welcome the Sun God and purify themselves and their holdings. The fire is lit at sunset and allowed to burn down until after dawn (though some traditions light the fire at moonrise.)
Traditionally, when the moon is high, people jump over the fire to purify themselves. If the fire touches your heels, you will have healthy children and live to a ripe old age, in health and well being. However, if the flame reaches higher than the bottom of your feet, your energy will fade and your seed will be weak. “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candle stick,” is a rhyme that recalls this ancient tradition.
In the early morning hours, the bonfire is divided into two sections and livestock is driven through the middle to insure fertility and longevity. (I tried this with my three cats – don’t go there!) At daybreak, the herds are moved to higher summer pastures.
In England, the Royal Family still light a bonfire each May Eve to insure the longevity and prosperity of their line. The Edinburgh Society hosts annual Beltane events that take place over a five-day period. They are said to be quite traditional.
Beltane is a time for sexual abandon and fertility rites. It is the time when the resurrected Sun God and the awakened Earth Goddess join in the Scared Marriage. The May Pole is a symbol of the God planting himself in the Goddess, Earth Mother. Traditionally young men and women dance around the pole, interweaving red and white streamers, until they meet at the fully wrapped pole.
During Beltane, all marriage vows are set aside (even hand-fasted couples are exempt). Men and women dance around and through the bale-fire becoming the embodiment of the May Queen and King. When they feel an attraction to their dancing partner they disappear into the woods. Each child born of Beltane is sacred, a child born not of man. The lyrics from Camelot, by Lerner and Lowe express this feeling of abandon: “It’s May! It’s May! The lusty month of May! Those dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks! Everyone makes divine mistakes! The lusty month of May!”
There are many ways we can participate in this festival of life and creativity.
Sleep under the stars, weather permitting. If you live in the city, take a drive away from the city lights, and look into the night sky. If you can find a campground, sleep over night and awaken before dawn.
If you can’t sleep outside, awaken before dawn and wait for the sun to rise. When the first rays appear, sing a song about the joy of life, the joy of family, the joy of going back to bed for a quick nap—anything that puts you in mind of the miracle of life. Sing an old favorite or make one up.
If you find morning dew, wash your face with it. It is a gift from the faeries and brings youth and beauty, as well as sensuality and the ability to enchant and bewitch
Walk the circuit of your property, singing and beating a drum. Take an oath to care for the land and to honor the life that grows there. Repair fences or boundary markers.
Make a May Basket filled with spring flowers, and give it to someone. The tradition is to give the flowers anonymously, as a gift from the faeries. Each year, from the time that I was two, I made a basket filled with flowers and left it on my mother’s porch. I’d ring the bell and run away. I’d hide nearby and watch her scoop up the basket and say “My, my. The faeries must think I’m very special. They left me flowers from their magic grove.” I’d giggle in delight. When I moved away from home, I would have the florist send a bouquet without a card. My mom would call and say, “You’ll never guess what the faeries left on my porch …”
Planning your garden, or just buying a new houseplant, is a way to celebrate life and creativity. Starting a new creative project, or resurrecting an old one, is also a wonderful expression of this festival.
This is the time to contemplate: What in yourself and/or your life would you like to celebrate? Be bold—romp about in your life, embrace the truly wonderful aspects of yourself that may have been overlooked. Don’t let the shadow of living cover the bright light of being alive, being vital, being joyful.
Overall, Beltane is a time to remember the joys of life. There are other times to contemplate what needs to be changed or discarded. For this one day, relish the miracle of being alive, the wonder of new life pushing up from the soil, the pleasure of being held and loved. Some traditions celebrate Beltane from April 30 through May 6; go for it if you have the stamina!