Beltane, known as Lá Bealtaine in Ireland and Lá Bealltainn in Scotland, is a Celtic holiday celebrated on the first day of May, the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Known as a festival of purification by fire, Beltane was the time when the ancient Gaels welcomed in the warm half of the year, in the hopes of abundance and fertility for all. People across Ireland and Scotland celebrated Beltane for more than 1,000 years through to the 19th Century, before the pagan customs died out a bit, only to be revived by the neopagan community in recent decades.
Pastoral and agrarian, the Celts marked time according to the wheel of the seasons. They celebrated holidays that marked changes in the natural world around them, which were tied to the many gods and goddesses they worshipped. Each quarter of the year is related to an elemental force. The Spring Equinox in March precedes Beltane as the first celebration involving the element of fire, while the Summer Solstice is related to the element of Air. Beltane celebrates the beginning of summer, when the cattle were led back out to pasture. As the cattle grazed in the lush fields, people celebrated the abundance and fertility of the warm months ahead.
Traditionally, Beltane festivals involved rituals that were believed to ensure a healthy pasturing season for dairy cattle, crops, and the people who depended on the animals and land for their nourishment. The main element of the season is fire, and so this element was the key component in the Beltane festivals. “Bel” refers to the Celtic god of fire, Belenus, who protects the crops and cattle by purifying them in his element: “tene”, the old Irish word for fire. On this day, villagers would light bonfires and walk their cattle around the smoking flames —sometimes leaping coals!— to purify themselves and the animals before leading them out to the summer pastures.
To increase the potency of the purifying powers of the holy flames, families would put out all fires before the bonfires were lit. After purification rituals were completed, farmers would carry torches lit from the fire around their homes to protect their crops. All hearthfires were lit again from the source of the sacred flame. When the bonfires died down, farmers sprinkled the ashes over themselves, animals, and over their crops.
Foods like lamb, bannocks (oatmeal cakes) were cooked during the celebration over the bonfire and distributed among families. A mixture of dairy and oats was boiled and offered with pieces of cake to the spirits and aos sí (fairies) for protection, as well as to appease the animals who may threaten crops and cattle. Protection from the mischievous fairies and other otherworldly spirits was considered vital in Ireland for centuries. Farmers would not only make offerings of milk and cakes, but in some traditions, they drew blood from cattle to satisfy the spirits. These precautions and festivities welcomed in the most abundant time of the year when hopes were highest and life was most pleasant, and the blood sacrifice was meant to be the least of one’s troubles in the months to come.
After these ceremonies for purification and protection were completed, people would make garlands of fiery-hued flowers to decorate cattle, farm equipment, and at the entrances of homes, beautifying their surroundings with the bounty of the season. Further, the water from holy wells, natural springs, was considered to be extra potent at the change of seasons, as was dew from the grass at first light on Beltane day. Young women would wash their faces and rub the dew on their hair and bodies to enhance their attractiveness in preparation for the festivities.
Beltane welcomes in the days when the sun’s rays are strongest, the air is warm, the leaves and flowers are in full bloom, and animals happily fatten themselves from the land. What we may take from these ancient rituals is that being connected to nature is valuable to our well-being. When nature awakens in springtime, so too do we!Neopagans mainly focus on the fertility aspect of the old rites, so events include gathering to dance around bonfires, eating good food, and making merry.
If you’re so inclined, you may celebrate the first day of May by gathering with friends to embrace your own abundance. It’s the perfect day for a picnic on the grass or a flower-strewn, candle-lit dinner party. Celebrating hearth and home, purifying with fire (lighting incense, smudging with herbs), decorating with symbols of the natural world that make you feel connected to your surroundings and the earth, and being in good company to celebrate abundance, fertility, creativity, and growth, are all beautiful ways to welcome in the warmth of Beltane time.