Beltane, Beltaine or May Day is most commonly celebrated on the 1st of May each year and is one of the greater pagan festivals in the year. Falling half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, Beltaine marks the beginning of Summer. Traditionally it was a time of moving animals to new green pastures and lighting bonfires, both to purify and herald the light and heat that was to come with the summer. Beltaine was primarily a celebration of fertility.

It falls opposite Samhain (Wheel of the Year) which is apt given that Samhain is concerned very much with our mortality and the afterlife. Spirits, faeries and the departed were considered to be particularly active at both these times and folklore documents many little rituals for keeping evil spirits at bay – throwing milk at the threshhold of the door (or blood from a sacrificed animal), lighting a new fire and offering food and gifts to the faerie folk for example.

Beltaine is the last of the three spring festivals – the other two being Imbolg and Ostara. It marks the start of the 2nd half of the pagan year and is also the start of the 3rd quarter.

Lots of traditions have their own rituals and legends about Beltaine. In Ireland, cattle and animals were herded through two bonfires in the belief that it would purify and protect them. Both the flames and ashes of these fires were believed to have protective powers and people would walk through the twin fires as well, if not jump through or over the flames.

This was a time of year when the fires within the houses would be quenched. Normally, fires would be left smouldering throughout the night and then the embers from the old used to light the new morning fire. But at Bealtaine, the old fire was quenched and a new one lit, symbolic of the new chapter in life that was about to begin. The dark and cold of the winter had passed and a warm and bright future awaited with the coming of summer – it was fitting that a new fire would be set to welcome it.

Dancing around the May Pole from 'A little pretty pocket book' (Isaiah Thomas)
Dancing around the May Pole from ‘A little pretty pocket book’ (Isaiah Thomas)

Feasts, dancing and festivals formed part of the Beltaine celebrations and one feature that has carried over to modern times is that of the May Day Pole. As the festival was also a symbol of fertility, it would not be a huge jump in imagination to deduce the May Day Pole was symbolic of the male phallus. At this time of year, it is the male god that is in the ascendency, the female goddess having nurtured the earth in her womb during the winter months. Celebrating fertility would have formed a natural part of the Bealtaine festivals, the power of the male god honored as it neared its full potency. May day poles are also symbolic of the Tree of Life, its roots inherently connected to the earth (female) and stretching towards the skies. In this way, they remind us of the three worlds and also the past present and future.

The Wicker man or the Green May is also a way of honoring the male principle involved in Beltaine. Commonly made of sticks and leaves, modern festivals usually burn them as huge bonfires at the end of their festivals.

This is a time of year when the earth has begun to respond to the warming rays of the sun. New growth is evident all around us, shoots and buds easily visible on most trees and plants. Lots of animals give birth around this time, choosing the warm summer as a time to raise their young rather than the harsh winter. Mother Earth is giving birth to a host of new life and the male god plays an important role in bringing this about.

Handfasting Ceremony. Picture courtesy of the ShahMai Network.
Handfasting Ceremony. Picture courtesy of the ShahMai Network.

Because of its association with fertility and new life, Beltaine can be a good time of the year to start afresh. New jobs, project and love interests can all be woven into our consideration of Beltaine. It is traditional for handfasting ceremonies to take place at Beltaine.Alters can be decorated with the fruits and flowers of the earth symbolising the female. A pole can be erected on the alter to honor the male creative energies or more traditional would be antlers or fir cones.

For festivals and alters, it is the natural colours of  May that are used – yellow, greens, browns and all the colours that nature brings forth at this time of year. Daffodils and daisies are two flowers that are easy to find and cherries, mangos and oats are all ripe at this time. Baking foods rich in berries and spices (such as the Barm Brack) and leaving some out for the Fae is a nice way to start the celebrations.