In my neck of the woods, in eastern Canada, the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice will be May 5th, at 2 minutes to 4 o'clock in the afternoon. This is the moment when we astrologically step from the end of spring to the beginning of summer. Since ancient times – since the Iron Age - it has been celebrated as the final victory of life over death, light over darkness, and the return of life to the earth as the heat of the sun makes its way back into our world.
In the wheel of the year, this is the opposite pole to Samhain. Like Samhain, it is believed to be a time in the year when the veil between the world of the spirit and the physical realm is at its most thin, and humans can more easily connect with the spirit of the land. The celebration of coming of summer, honors fertility, abundance, sexuality, sensuality, creativity of all sorts, and the growth of everything beautiful on earth.
Bealtaine is named after the Celtic god of light known as Bel or Belinus. It celebrates the return of the heat of the sun – and the heat of our passions – by the stoking of large bonfires, usually lit by striking two pieces of wood together, and rubbing and grinding till the sparks fly. A symbolic union of the earth and the sky, it represented the inner heat of light, insight, intelligence, and the fecundity and creative passion of life. The bonfire was believed to foster and protect the fertility of the growing season to come.
In ancient times, Druids would kindle great “Bel-fires”, or bonfires, made from nine different kinds of wood. The fires would blaze on top of Beacon Hills. Each village would have its Beltane fire, believed to protect and bring healing and fertility.
Cattle would be released from the barns after a long winter. They would then be driven between the two fires to cleanse them of disease ,and ensure their fertility, and the richness of milk yield, in the coming months. Young couples would leap over the twin Beltane fires, running between them or dancing around them clockwise. Young unmarried people would leap the bonfire wishing for a husband or a wife. Young women would leap the bel-fire to ensure their fertility, and couples leap through the twin fires together to strengthen their bond.
Beltaine celebrates the fecundity of the earth, and the fertility of we humans who are also part of that natural world. Beltaine became the traditional time for hand-fasting in Celtic culture. The hands of the couple would be tied together in the symbolic gesture of tying the knot. It marked the engagement of the couple. A trial marriage would then last for a year and a day at which point the couple could decide to officially marry or to go their separate ways.
It's a time when a broomstick could be laid on the ground, and a couple jump over that threshold together, as an early form of marriage.
In Scotland, sometimes juniper branches were added to the fire to increase the smoke’s purification quality. The bright fire - or White, shining fire at Beltane - would protect a couple's love, just as it would protect cattle from disease. To pass between the fires, or to pass through the smoke, cleansed the spirit - burning up and destroying any harmful influences - bringing health, vigour and vitality. On Beltaine eve, all the hearth fires and candles would be doused, and at the end of the festival they would all be re-lit from the Beltaine bonfire, renewing the fire of life.
In old Roman culture, the first of May was celebrated as Floralia, the festival of Flora, goddess of flowers. Flowers are part of the Beltaine celebrations in many parts of the world. Hawthorn blossoms would be used to decorate homes and barns and turned into a sweet wine. May baskets were filled with the first flowers of summer and left on doorsteps of friends or family, loved ones or the elderly. Branches of the hawthorn tree, or other types of trees, would be decorated with bright flowers, ribbons and painted shells. Sometimes there would be dancing, and singing, and celebrating in circles around the May tree.
In many parts of the world, a very large pole or trunk of a tree would be erected high in the sky as a symbol of fertility. Ribbons would be interwoven around the May pole as people danced in circles around the tree to celebration fecundity and the flowering of life.
Yellow flowers, such as Primrose or Marigold, were set in doorways and windows. Sometimes loose flowers strewn on the ground at thresholds of doorways. Yellow flowers, representing the sun, were fastened to cows to encourage protection and abundance of milk.
At Beltaine, people would journey to visit sacred wells, rivers or lakes to ask for blessing and protection. People would leave offerings at the well, sometimes throwing a coin into the water or making a food offering to the spirit of the land. It was said that to wash one's face with the morning dew at Beltane would maintain youthfulness and increase one's sexual allure.
It is a time to celebrate the magic that is life itself.
Beltaine is the time when those seeds that we planted in the spring – in our gardens and in our lives – become fertile and potent. Whether it’s the conceiving of a child, or a business venture, a new relationship, or any kind of creative project:
…now is the time for things to flower and grow.
Beltane continues to be celebrated in many parts of the world as May Day, the eve of April 30th and the day of May 1st or 2nd. In Bulgaria, the holiday is associated with rituals to protect people from snakes or lizards. In the Czech Republic, bonfires are lit to celebrate the holiday of love. In Finland, it is one of the four biggest holidays of the year. There is a great carnival-style festival with sparkling wine, singing and dancing, freshly baked cakes and mead, an alcoholic beverage made from honey.
It was May 1st, 1561 when King Charles the IXth of France received a lily of the Valley as a lucky charm and decided to offer lily of the valley flowers each year to the ladies of the court. The custom continues, and on the first of May lilies of the valley are sold tax free in bunches of flowers to be offered to loved ones. In Germany, there are bonfires, and May tree covered in streamers can be taken to the house of the girl that you love: in leap years, the women bring one to the men. In Greece, flower wreaths are purchased from flower shops, or woven from wildflowers, and hung at the entrance of the family home. In Serbia, May 1st is a night to spend by a campfire, and it marks the official beginning of barbecue season.
The beginning of summer: it’s a time for singing and dancing, and feasting and drinking, bonfires, flowers and delight, a time to celebrate the sexual, and the sensual, and any creative union which brings life.
So in this season of celebrating the coming of summer may you be inspired to give pause and notice the magic of a world that has come into flower and bloom.
If you wish, build a bonfire on the beach, or a fire in the hearth, or light a large pillar candle and reflect. Notice the cleansing, protecting quality that comes of stoking our inner flames as we burn off what it is that we need to let go.
If you wish, bring yellow flowers into your world. Prepare something fun for a feast; there should be something sweet. Watch a sunrise. Dance. Spend time in nature. Make an offering of birdseed to the spirits of the land. Place a flower wreath on your door. If you feel inspired, you may wish to wash the front door, and clean the glass, as we cross the threshold into summer. Pay attention – take joy and delight – in the pleasure of your own sensuality, or sexuality, whatever that looks like for you. This is the time for a romantic weekend, or a romantic evening beside the fire. Pay really close attention while you enjoy excellent chocolate. Walk barefoot across the lawn.
Beltane, the coming of summer, is hedonistic. Celebrate the abundance of life, fertility, fire and fun. Stoke your inner flame and welcome the sun. We will feel whole and alive to the degree that we connect to that wholeness of which we are a part.
So, shake off what it is that you need to let go, and dance into May.
Copyright © 2019, Adela Sandness