The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of eight seasonal sabbats that are observed by many historical and contemporary pagans. On our blog we’ve previously covered two of the fire festivals, Samhain and Imbolc. May 1st will mark the third of the fire festivals: Beltane.
Beltane, also known as May Day, falls approximately midway between the spring equinox (Ostara) and the summer solstice (Litha) in the Northern Hemisphere. While the autumn festival Samhain begins of the dark half of the year, Beltane begins the light half. Because of this, Beltane is also sometimes called Cetsamhain, or “opposite Samhain,” and celebrates the transition of spring into summer. Spiritually Beltane embraces fertility, protection, life, nature, and ardor for the return of summer.
The History of Beltane
Beltane’s historical roots come from the Gaelic Celtic regions of the British Isles prior to the influence of the Roman Empire. The earliest historical record of Beltane comes from Cormac’s Glossary, written in the 10th century by Cormac mac Cuilennáin, Bishop of Cashel and King of Munster, Ireland. Cormac’s record details some of the druidic rituals that would be practiced during Beltane. For instance, bonfires were lit as offerings to the Celtic deity Belenus. Members of the community danced around or even leapt over the flames, while livestock were herded along paths between the fires to gain protection from diseases, natural disasters, and supernatural forces during the upcoming season.
There are still contemporary celebrations of Beltane in many pagan communities. Since 1988 the Beltane Fire Festival has been held on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland. People celebrate with a procession led by the Green Man, May Queen, and other characters, as well as dancing, music, fire performances, and, of course, the lighting of a community bonfire.
Ways to Celebrate Beltane
Thinking about celebrating Beltane this year? Here are a few ideas of contemporary practices that draw inspiration from Beltane’s historical traditions.
1. Maypoles – Maypole dances are a common Beltane practice. Traditionally colorful ribbons would be attached to the top of pole or tree. With each person holding one of the ribbons, they would begin a dance around the maypole, weaving the ribbons together. A maypole dance can represent an expression of joy, fertility, good health, and strong bonds. To celebrate Beltane you could participate in an actual maypole dance with your friends or community, or create a miniature maypole to decorate your altar or use in a ritual.
2. Bonfires – Host a bonfire with friends and family. You can incorporate dancing, music, food, and other celebratory practices. Bonfires can also be a great source of energy and power to enhance spells or rituals performed during Beltane, especially those pertaining to fertility or protection. Although you may not have livestock to herd between the bonfires, a modern version of this ritual might be asking for spiritual protection for your pets during the upcoming year.
3. May Baskets – Perfect for gift-givers, the tradition of creating a May Basket involves filling a basket with flowers, treats, and the intention of good health and joy. May Baskets would often be left outside of someone’s door, with the giver knocking and running away before the gift was discovered (basically the nicest ding-dong ditch). May Basket were typically given to loved ones, neighbors, romantic interests, those recovering from illness, or anyone in need of support.
4. Flower Weaving – Another common Beltane practice is weaving flower crowns and wreaths, as well as decorating your hair and home with flowers. This practice can be used as a fertility ritual, but it can also be used to symbolize a connection with the natural world and invite growth into your life. You may even want to research the meanings and properties of different flowers in order to create a wreath or crown that serves a particular spiritual intention.
5. Faerie Offerings – Just like how it is believed that the veil between worlds is thinner during Samhain, Beltane was thought to be a prevalent time for specifically faerie and elf visitations. Offerings of food and milk were left for the fae to try and appease them and prevent mischief. Whether you are interested in warding off the fae or creating goodwill and working with their energy, Beltane is the perfect time to leave offerings to the faeries on your altar, doorstep, yard, or out in nature.
These are just a few of the many ways that you can celebrate Beltane. Do you have more ideas? Leave us a comment! We would love to hear about how you plan to celebrate.
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