How (and when!) will you celebrate Bealtaine?
When I first started to explore my Celtic roots and the spirituality of my ancestors, I was fascinated by the lore and the idea of celebrating the milestones within the year as it turned and transformed through the growth cycles of life, from the seeds planted in darkness that gloriously emerged in spring, flourished and flowered, and then were harvested later in the year, along with their fruits or nuts or berries, providing the seeds for the next cycle. For animal life, there is a similar cycle of mating, birthing, shedding/moulting, hibernating or migrating, etc. I loved that Grandmother Moon offered us the same cycle each month, waxing and waning like the solar year.
I loved exploring how my ancestors celebrated and wanted to replicate that in my own celebrations of the eight festivals from Samhain through to Lúnasa. I wanted to learn their ancestral skills, learn about the foods they consumed at celebrations, follow their rituals and practices. I also explored Celtic Reconstructionism, which includes many sub-traditions, which attempts to establish and practise the ancient traditions. I do love that that work continues, as understanding the foundation of the ancestral traditions is important, and can be both illuminating and inspiring. And I still embrace learning those ancient skills!
I soon realized that practising just as my ancestors did wasn’t truly possible for me, for a number of reasons.
We don’t really know how, or even precisely when, they actually celebrated. Much of my Celtic ancestors’ lore, including their celebratory practices and traditions, was passed on orally, from parent to child, from bard or priest to their village. Besides the fact that most folks were illiterate, their spiritual leaders, the druids, chose not to create any written accounts. Several sources confirm the Druids’ literacy but also their doctrine of not recording knowledge in written form. In Ireland, and likely other Celtic fringe countries, the arrival of the Catholic church changed that. Those oral traditions and lore — songs, tales, and histories — were written down by the monks, many of whom were NOT Irish speakers, and they were definitely not well versed in local history or pagan practices. Furthermore, we don’t know what perspective they may have added to the tales! For instance, many looked for associations between pagan deities and Catholic saints, such as the the qualities and lore of the goddess Brighid becoming infused into those of Saint Brigid, who died c. 525 and who then somehow became associated with the Virgin Mary (they were not contemporaries at all!).
I still wanted to know what my ancestors believed, how their spirituality was inspired by the natural world, but also realized that spirituality is a living breathing practice. It reflects our culture, our place, and our Self, and transforms over time and place. As Celtic spirituality spread around the world, the timing of the various celebrations in what had become a “fixed date” wheel of the year did not necessarily reflect what was happening locally in an energetic sense. For instance, in my locale (Vancouver, BC), Imbolg — celebrated around February 1st — definitely feels like the early spring of my ancestors. But for my friends not too far north of Vancouver, early spring may still not have arrived and the snow may still be on the ground in May. .
The lives of our ancestors were vastly different from the life experiences most of us now have. So I will not be taking cattle to their summer pastures, but can look into how I can celebrate early summer as it manifests in my locale. Let us each look at the energetic essence of those original celebrations and beliefs and bring that into our contemporary experiences.
Let us create rituals and spiritual practices that celebrate, for instance, Bealtaine as a time of new beginnings, of the light half of the year, a time of regeneration, and ponder how that festival or celebration fits into what we now call the Wheel of the Year… and also let us choose when to celebrate Bealtaine, either on the traditional date of May 1st, or on the “true” or lunar date, or on a date that reflects the arrival of early summer.
For instance, you might consider the alchemy of the season, the transformational energy that marks or defines Bealtaine for you. One could say it’s the transition from the Air element that we associate with spring to the Fire element we associate with summer. For me, this combination and transition between Air and Fire says liminality, a place where the elements (or worlds) co-exist and influence each other. We draw from each, ultimately moving fully from Air to Fire when the Summer Solstice arrives, the peak of the Sun’s fire.
Bealtaine and the Wheel(s) of the Year
When we consider how or when to celebrate Bealtaine, we can look at it in the context within what we now call the Wheel of the Year (this is a more contemporary construct, likely not referred to by my Celtic ancestors) and how it has become an eight-fold year of celebrations. We can also look at it as the waxing complement to the waning energy of Samhain. Both represent significant beginnings and endings, each a shift in the balance of our internal duality: Yin and Yang, Day and Night, Light and Dark, Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine, composition and decomposition, and each a complementary reflection of the other.
Samhain and Bealtaine were the original “hinges” of the Celtic two-fold year, with Bealtaine essentially marking the beginning of summer and the Light Half of the Year, and Samhain the beginning of winter and the Dark Half of the Year. At Bealtaine we celebrate life, and at Samhain we honour the dead, and our ancestors.
For the Celts, beginnings began in darkness, so the day began at sunset and the year began at Samhain. These celebrations essentially divided their year into one long “day”. The two-season year eventually became a four-season year, with the addition of Imbolg, marking early spring, and Lúnasa, marking early autumn.
Some suggest what we now call the Wheel of the Year is likely rooted in two separate four-fold years or wheels: the Fire festivals of Samhain, Imbolg, Bealtaine and Lúnasa and the Solar-based festivals (also known as the Irish Cross Quarters) of the Summer and Winter Solstices, and the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes. The Fire Festivals originally had no clear fixed dates, unlike the Sun-based festivals which fell on astronomically observable dates.
Those events, which many of us now call festivals, reflected the changes in the world around them, and were celebrated based on observing the world around them, the environmental markers that said “Yes, it’s winter” (Samhain, roughly pronounced as sow-en) and “Yes, it’s summer” (Bealtaine, roughly pronounced as bee-yowl-ten-neh), etc.
The Sun-based festivals, marked by the solstices and equinoxes, also became part of the celebrations throughout the year. Some academics have argued that these were not an important part of the pagan or Celtic year, and that may be true. But there is some evidence that those celestial events (especially the arrival of the solstices) were significant enough to capture in the alignments of the tomb and stone monuments across Europe, such as Stonehenge in England, Newgrange in Ireland, and others.
But what would a contemporary vision of Bealtaine look like?
I am inspired in my practice by the writings of Dana O’Driscoll, who has shared her concept for a 21st Century “Wheel of the Year for the Age of the Anthropocene” in her Druids Garden blog. Click here for her post on Bealtaine, which also includes the beautiful graphic pictured below for her re-imagined wheel of the year. along with new correspondences for each festival.
Bealtaine early traditions
Bealtaine falls at the midpoint between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, and was traditionally celebrated by my Irish ancestors as the start of their Summer. Bonfires were lit to celebrate the fertility of the spring planted crops, and livestock were also both celebrated and cleansed with those same bonfires by walking the livestock between the smoky fires to cleanse them of lice or other bugs. Other aspects of animal husbandry took place (docking the lambs’ tails, castrating young rams, etc). Typically the village or family women then accompanied the cattle and other livestock to their summer pastures, and stayed with them for either the summer season or for a few weeks, to establish the herd.
On both Bealtaine and Samhain, it was believed (and still believed, by many modern pagans) that the veils between the worlds are at their thinnest. Some call this “the time of no time”, a time when the physical world and the spirit world mingle freely and magick happens. In Faerie lore, it is believed that on Bealtaine, Faeries come back from their winter homes, ready to make mischief in our world (hence the many protection spells of Bealtaine!).
It was also believed that Bealtaine was a magical night when anything could happen: abduction by the faeries, theft of dairy products (so precious to them) or fire. In fact, on Bealtaine folks were reluctant to light a fire in the hearth (or be the first to do so) and often ate cold food that day, or went hungry until mid-day when it was “safe” to do so. Nothing would leave the house: food scraps were burned, cinders and ashes were not removed from the hearth, floor sweepings were thrown into the fire, etc. The hearth and threshold (doorway) were swept clean on May eve / Bealtaine eve, and ashes sprinkled lightly across the threshold so that they could check for evidence of suspicious visitors in the morning! (Source: The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher, available to read at no charge in the Open Library in archive.org)
In past days, some Celts and Druids celebrated Bealtaine (also the Irish word for the month of May) as the Union of the Goddess and the Green Man — and perhaps the union of the Dagda and The Morrígan (also associated with Samhain) — the fertility of Spring and Summer, the fertility of the fields and by celebrating their own sensuality, sexuality and fertility.
At the Spring Equinox — aka Earrach and Alban Eilir — we celebrated the Maiden within, the beginnings of new growth and life. At Bealtaine, that has matured towards womanhood, and a celebration of our sensuality and sexuality. We celebrate both our Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine. Perhaps at Bealtaine you will choose to explore your own sensuality and passions in your Soul Work and in your life.
Bealtaine and May Day
The first day of May — or a few days later, if we observe “true” Bealtaine (the precise midpoint between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice) — has been celebrated by many cultures in Europe as the first day of Summer, especially by early pagan cultures — from the Romans and their Festival of Flora on April 27th (or thereabouts) to my Celtic ancestors who celebrated Bealtaine on April 30 / May 1 (the day began at sunset in the Celtic culture, as in many other cultures). And on this date, those in the Southern Hemisphere will be celebrating Samhain, and celebrate Bealtaine on or about November 1st.
May Day, as it became to be known elsewhere in Europe, continued from the pagan era into more recent times. For tenant farmers in Ireland, for instance, this was a “gale day”, the day when a tenancy began or ended and when rent was due. It was a time to hire farm hands and milk maids for a six-month period (until Samhain), and often there were public fairs for hiring folk. The contracts were not finalized on Bealtaine, however, as typically no business or buying/selling was done in this day. With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar the date was repositioned, based on the gap between the two calendars, to May 12th. It was also a time of taking stock of the household stores, to see how well they had planned for the sparse winter with breads and grains, cheeses, butter. If there was sufficient stock, they celebrated with a “hasty pudding”, essentially a flavoured flour and milk sauce.
The May Pole tradition is likely rooted in early fertility rites in Britain. Typically the pole (representing male fertility) would be placed in the village green, decorated with red and white ribbons (representing female and male fertility, respectively) and then celebrated with a ribbon dance around the pole by the village maidens. Often the May Pole would be created with hawthorn (The Queen of the May, so symbolic of Bealtaine), or another of the three Faerie Trees (Oak, Ash & Thorn).
And at times the newer celebration depart strongly from the original, and Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht) could be considered an example. Saint Walpurga was an 8th century abbess who battled not just illness and pests, but witches too! So while our witchy sisters were celebrating Hexennacht (Witches’ Night) on Bealtaine Eve in Europe, others were asking Saint Walpurga for her help in ridding them of the witchy influences and for keeping “evil” at bay. Both groups celebrating, but in very different ways!
Hawthorn, the sacred tree of Bealtaine
The hawthorn tree, pictured in the header and above, is also known as the “Queen of the May” as it blooms around May 1st. It was, and is, associated with both Bealtaine and the Fae, aka the faeries, and was believed to be their home as well as an entrance to the Underworld, a portal to a world of magic and ancestors, protected by those thorny branches. At both Bealtaine and Samhain the veils are thin, and it was believed that the thorny Hawthorn could protect us from visitors from the Otherworld . . . or making our own way there!
Hawthorn was considered as sacred by the Irish and others, such as the Druids. You may be familiar with the Sacred Thorn in Glastonbury, England, which in local lore was believed to have been planted by Joseph of Arimathea, when he drove his hawthorn staff into the ground. In ancient and biblical lore, Joseph was allegedly responsible for burying Jesus, and guarding the Holy Grail. Some believe him to be a relative of Jesus, possibly the brother of Mary. Sadly the Sacred Thorn has been much abused (and even chopped) in recent years.
Hawthorn is the tree of the Heart, known for healing in many ways: emotionally, medicinally and spiritually. The tree lore is wide and varied, and includes its magical properties. Consider working with hawthorn, or one of its sisters in the Rosacaeae / rose family of plants, using the hawthorn flowers or boughs on your altar or for decorating our home.
How will you celebrate?
Each of the eight festivals in the Celtic / Pagan wheel of the year offer us different energies and different ways to interact with the world around as, as we follow the shifting energies of seeding and rooting, growth, flowering, harvesting and renewal throughout the year. These are opportunities to tune in to the rhythms of Nature and celebrate the seasons, the elements, and the sacred dance with Gaia, Mama Earth. For me this is an important aspect of creating Right Relationship with the Earth.
Community and personal celebrations of Bealtaine, all of which can be adapted or modernized, typically included activities such as:
- special foods (especially those with floral elements and honey)
- dancing around the May Pole (more of an English tradition than an Irish one)
- making charms to protect oneself from abduction by the faeries, strangers, thieves, “strange” animals, or any bad luck
- wreaths and insignia created from oak leaves, to represent the Green Man (again, more English than Irish)
- making “May balls”, decorated “hurling” balls (a game) with flowers, tassels, symbols of the sun and moon, and a hoop to represent Bel/the Sun
- sipping May Wine (a herb-flavoured wine, typically woodruff). You might like this Food.com recipe.
- make a crown or floral wreath from hawthorn, or use a windfall bough like a wand, energetically moving it through your space or aura to cleanse and raise energy
- celebrating the symbolic union of the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine in ritual, parades, performances
- decorating with garlands, rowan sprigs and boughs of spring flowers, especially those of the hawthorn trees, aka The Queen of the May
- choosing an honorary May Queen and her consort, the Green Man (again, more English than Irish)
- prognostication / divination: it was believed that the weather on Bealtaine or May Day was a harbinger of what was to come for the next six months so noted the conditions (winds, rains, sunshine, temperature, etc)
When will you celebrate Bealtaine?
You have so many choices!
Some like to celebrate on what is now considered the traditional or fixed date, beginning at sunset on April 30th through to sunset on May 1st.
Some celebrate on “true” Bealtaine, calculated as the precise midpoint between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice, just as “true” Samhain is calculated as the precise midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. One source I use to confirm that midpoint is Russell Cottrell’s Celtic Year Horologium blog, which suggests May 5th at 18:19 UTC. The now-archived archaeoastronomy site suggests May 5th at 18:13 UTC. Close enough for me!
Others like to celebrate on Lunar Bealtaine, defined as the full moon closest to the traditional date. In 2023, that would be the Full Moon in Scorpio arriving May 5th at 17:34 UTC, coincidentally the same date as “true” Bealtaine this year.
But perhaps the most important time is to celebrate Bealtaine when it’s right for you. Celebrate when you feel the presence of early summer, when there is growth around you, and the flowering of trees and plants. Work with the energies around you as you regenerate with Bealtaine.
Create practices and rituals that support that Bealtaine energy in a way that truly reflects your way of being, your locale, your place in this world. Perhaps you will be inspired to write a poem, dance, sing or plant some herbs.
As for me, I will celebrate with some May Wine, a little prognostication, and making some decorations with foraged plants and flowers. I often make a new incense for Bealtaine, and am thinking now about what to include. I will sit beside a hawthorn tree and talk with the otherworld, and celebrate the abundance around me.