Today is a day for raging bonfires and promising summer pastures, flower garlands and bright ribbons. Today is May 1st, halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Today is what many of you will know as ‘Beltane’, the Celtic fire festival of fertility and high spring.
The Celtic year is traditionally split into two halves - the dark and the light. Samhain (celebrated at the end of October/beginning of November, and associated with the modern-day Halloween) heralds the beginning of the ‘dark’ part of the year. Beltane, celebrated now, heralds the ‘light’. There were many colourful rites and rituals the Celts undertook at Beltane; a number of which still persist today. Let’s take a look at some of the old and new ways of celebrating this sacred seasonal festival.
Traditionally, the Celts would build large bonfires on the eve of Beltane and drive the tribal livestock through the fire for purification and increased fertility. Leaping across the fire was said to bring good luck - for young people, finding a lover; for travellers, a safe journey; for the ill, a quick recovery.
While safety and animal welfare concerns might make this tradition less prevalent, fire is still a corner-store of modern day Beltane festivities. Revellers still build roaring bonfires to dance and sit around. Ashes from the fires can be rubbed on the skin, and food cooked in the fire’s embers is said to take on its purification powers. Even if you don’t have the ability to build a bonfire, simple candle rituals and burning sacred herbs can be a good way to pay your respects to the shifting seasons this Beltane.
Spiritual deities make up a large part of Beltane lore. The May Queen is a common figure - also known as the Spring Goddess, Flora or the May Bride, she is the female manifestation of growth and renewal. Stories have her marrying The Oak King (the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green) at Beltane, uniting the earth with the sky, and the masculine with the feminine. Cernunnos is also an important Beltane character. Sometimes considered one and the same as the Green Man, Cernunnos is the horned god, the god of the green, and the king of fertility and vegetation.
While these figures aren’t worshipped as commonly today, their energies are still felt at Beltane. The festival is a common time for handfasting and marriage ceremonies, when young couples join just like the May Queen and the Oak King do. ‘Going a may-ing’ still describes the practice of lovers going off together, to flirt and otherwise bond. This is also a time for worshipping fertility deities across many spiritual belief systems, from Artemis (Greek) to Bacchus (Roman) to Xochiquetzal (Aztec).
Flower Giving and Planting
Being the festival that celebrates high spring and impending summer, Beltane has always been awash with floral decor, greenery and garlands. On Beltane eve, villagers would go and gather budding greens from the forest to decorate their homes, doorsteps and barns. They would wear flowers in their hair and upon their wrists, and secretly gift friends (or those in need of healing) with bouquets and flower baskets.
Gifting flower baskets or making flower garlands is an easy and enjoyable way to celebrate Beltane now. Families with children might also like to plant flowers, vegetables or other plants in the garden together at Beltane in a form of modern ritual. Popular flowers and trees for Beltane include: primrose, daffodils, tulips, rowan, and hawthorn.
Although Beltane is traditionally the fire festival, May waters also held mystical power. Rolling in dew on May Day eve or morning, or getting one’s hair wet in the rain, was practised for health, luck and beauty. Holy wells were often visited and given offerings for good fortune and vitality, and the first water drawn from any common well on Beltane morning was said to be especially potent.
In the absence of rain or dew for your Beltane celebration you might choose to visit a local water body (pond, lake, spring or other) and provide your own offering of flowers, ribbons or coins. Beltane morning is also a favoured time for scrying in sacred waters.
However you chose to celebrate Beltane, this will surely be a time of brightness and greenery, sowing seeds and good intentions, and looking forward to a beautiful summer. We wish you good health, fertility and fortune in this time of light!
If you’ve liked reading about Beltane, you might be interested in our Celtic giftware collection, or our woodland series for some lovely nature-themed decor! You can find further reading about Celtic ritual and nature healing in the following book titles, too: