Bealtaine, Beltane or Gwyl Mair is a Celtic holiday celebrating the return of summer and end of winter. As such, it sits at the opposite point of the circle from Samhain and Calan Gaeaf. The names of the holiday reflect that it is celebrated in May, as in Calan Mai in Wales or the modern English May Day, or that it is a celebration of the sun’s return, as we see in Bealtaine and Beltane, where “Bel” offers a nod to a solar deity Belenos and also to the fires lit to honor his power and bring it to the community for cleansing, offering a doorway through which to pass into the new season. These fires featured dominantly in the Celtic Bealtaine, as opposed to the more Germanic May Day festivities. Indeed, Germanic summer solstice festivities were more likely to have bonfires than their May Day celebrations, and even now in many Celtic countries, this has become the custom, with solstice fires replacing May fires.
When visiting Ireland in 2005, I was able to attend festivities for Bonfire Night, the summer solstice, in which the fires were lit much like they describe in the old stories. Fires lit along the coast, seeming to follow a pattern set forth millennia before, such that they knew which fires to watch for and when to light their own. We sat on Inish Mor after seeing pilgrims praying at the local springs and in the evening we saw the children light the fires of summer and watched the community burn away all those things that no longer served them since the last fire – old nets replaced by new ones crafted in winter, old cable wheels, old clothes no longer needed, all sorts of things.
I do feel that this holiday has taken on many of the old traditions of Bealtaine. We see similarities between the tales of St John the Baptist and solar deities of the Celts and also in the activities prescribed for certain magical acts involving plants and activities on St John’s Day (the summer solstice). It seems that many of the old Bealtaine sacred actions have simply moved a few weeks later in the year to better fit the more Germanized British culture and Christianity. Some of these activities include the gathering of plants sacred to St John on the solstice before the morning dew has evaporated, because the plants will be most potent at this time, as compared to the activity of gathering dew from plants on the morning of Bealtaine in order to bless people, offer healing, or wash one’s face to remain fair and beautiful.
Adoption of a new calendar is a big reason I see for having moved many of the Celtic Bealtaine celebrations to the solstice, also accommodating for a holiday now on May 1st, the Germanic May Day. This date is not the day the Celts would have celebrated Bealtaine, at least in Ireland, for the hawthorn, the May Tree most often referenced as the tree whose flowering branches were paraded about as a show of the willingness of even the thorny Hawthorn Giant to give in to the warmth and growth of spring, does not even today flower until mid-May, and then there would have been a few more weeks in which to have the festival. For the Celts, this holiday was meant to mark a time of flowering upon the land, and putting it literally on May 1st, with all the same festivities of their former mid-May celebration wouldn’t have worked so well as moving it a month down the way, essentially splitting the festivals into a more Germanic version of a May celebration and a solar welcoming of summer in June.
So when to celebrate? Ancient markers for this holiday would have included signs on the land and in the sky. The blooming of a significant tree to the community would be required, such as the hawthorn for many Celtic peoples, as has been mentioned above as happening in mid-May for Ireland and here in the Colorado Rockies as well. Then too the stars would have had to align for the right time. The ancient Celts watched the Pleiades as the marker for Samhain and Bealtaine transitions, with the Pleiades rising just before sunrise at Bealtaine and just after sunset in the season of Samhain. This places the astronomical marker of Bealtaine at about May 5th. If using modern astrological renderings, the exact point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice would be when the sun reaches 15 degrees Taurus, or also around May 5th. If aligning with the moon, one would typically celebrate at the full moon in May, though some choose the first full moon in Taurus, which can make for the earliest date of these. And finally, one could choose the calendar date set by the Pope in 1582, which set back the date by nearly two weeks for most Europeans at the time. This is, of course, May 1st. Celebrating May Day most appropriately fits on May 1st, of course, though all of the same festivities might not fit for such an early date. It becomes a question then of celebrating both May Day and a later Bealtaine, perhaps even moving festivities to the solstice, keeping Bealtaine activities on a rather early date for land signs in the May 1 celebrations, or celebrating Bealtaine at a time that matches with the signs on the land and not celebrating on May 1st. I tend to feel that the more celebrations, the merrier, and I enjoy wishing my grove a happy 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Bealtaine for a month or two. I now see these holidays as periods of time, not exact moments, though I certainly can feel the shift of the seasons at times or I notice some sign on the land that the season has come. For here in the Colorado Rockies, mid-May seems to be even a little early for Bealtaine and one is safer from the cold reaches of winter by waiting until the weekend around the 15th, at the earliest and only if you’re not above 9000’ elevation, though a party or gathering on the 1st is certainly in order, as well as a good campout in June.
The Celtic holiday marks a time when darkness and cold have finally lost enough strength that the people’s king can come to power and free the Earth Goddess, who has chosen him as her lover and consort, for the success of the people through the season of warmth, light and growth. While the darkness has kept the growth of the land hidden and trapped all through the winter, the sacred king has been growing and strengthening. He has found his love, a woman of the earth’s power who is made of earth, literally made of the growth of the land, being sometimes made from flowers, such as the Welsh Blodeuwedd, or has flowers grow wherever she steps, as does Olwen, and such as the Irish Blathnat “little flower,” or Lugh’s Fomorian mother Eithne, whose name means “grain.” Many love stories from around the world that include a man searching for a way to resolve the problems of his people and finding just the right maiden in the most peculiar of places reflect the story and can be appropriate for the May festivities celebrating the uniting of the lovers and the loss of strength held by the winter powers not benevolent towards human survival and their crops.
Those winter powers, as Arianrhod at the beginning of the Welsh story and as Blodeuwedd at the end of it, are uninterested in the survival of the people. These powers were often represented as either male or female, and sometimes even as dragons and beasts. Even today, many Beltane celebrations in Celtic countries and Celtic diaspora celebrations involve dragons, and St. John was known to stop the diseases caused by dragons “dropping their seed into the wells and the coursing waters” and thus causing disease. He did this by lighting fires on his day, giving another clue about why he is celebrated at this time of year also. Indeed, even the lore shows clearly that St John is the counterpart to Christ, with their days standing at opposite ends of the year and their powers waxing and waning opposite each other, much like other Celtic seasonal gods, for as the power of St John wanes until the winter solstice, Christ’s begins to wax at that time, at his birth.
The Hawthorn Giant is another manifestation of the winter powers. The Giant’s requirements of Culhwch in his quest to win Olwen lead to his loss of power and then his subsequent flowering. Balor of the Baneful eye is another such entity, being the father of Eithne who would keep her locked in a tower forever if it weren’t for Cian finding a way to her and releasing her fertility for the good of the people, yielding a son, Lugh, who would serve as a bridge between the land and people and allow the people to live. Arianrhod is another of these winter powers, whose curse upon her son Lleu to never marry a woman of any race now on the earth results in he and his uncle conjuring up a wife out of flowers for him, whose name is Flower Face, Blodeuwedd. It is the celebration of the union of Eithne and Cian, of Lleu and Blodeuwedd, of Culhwch and Olwen, of Land and Tribe. This is the celebration of Bealtaine.
Other activities and themes of Bealtaine mirror the movement from winter to summer. There are tales of the fairies moving between their summer and winter homes, which is also associated with the summer solstice in some communities. Many people take steps to protect themselves, their children, farmlands and cattle at this time from the fairies. Also moving from their winter to summer homes are the cattle, going up to the summer pastures. With all things moving with the shifting of the seasons and the land, many things needed to be blessed, to remove any harm from harsh winter and to bring in the new. Farmlands, households, and family members were blessed. In old days, work and rent contracts were renewed or changed at Bealtaine, and in good festival style, parades and processions were had. There were games and, as at other powerful transition times, divinations were popular. Considering the themes of the day, love and marriage divinations were common, obviously in opposition to the death divinations of Samhain. Many traditional activities for the summer solstice in Ireland also likely carried over from old Bealtaine celebrations include jumping or stepping over the bonfire three times if you are setting forth on a new activity for the year, to ensure health, a safe birth, blessings for a young couple, etc. The St John’s fire’s embers were sent home with all the households to bless them and relight their fires. A new house had to have its fire first lit by the embers from this fire, and even a house accidentally set upon a fairy path could be corrected using the ember from Bonfire Night. In a modern Steiner school in Co. Clare, St John’s is the last festival of the school year and everyone jumps the fire at the end of the festival, including the young children, and all sing songs, play games, dance around the fire, and make bundles of green grass tied and thrown into the fire with a wish for the future or a request of something to be removed from their life. These are all modern activities still seen in many schools and communities in Ireland, some revived, some revisioned, and some long standing.
In modern pagan communities, Beltane is a more common celebration than Calan Mai, though some do call it May Day. Wiccans celebrate both Beltane/May Day and the Summer Solstice, as well as some Druids, much like the modern Celtic peoples, but the pagans celebrate the fertility aspects of Beltane and the union of the god and goddess, albeit a few weeks early for the old Celtic markers on the land. Beltane is often seen as a fertility celebration and many pagans mark the solstices as the times when the fairies are moving between their winter and summer homes. Modern lore goes so far as to sometimes call Beltane “outdoor sex” day, as prior to this, it’s too cold to even attempt it, and it is common to hear about “merry Maying,” going and having sex out in the woods or fields. Children born from a coupling on this day are blessed and are called merry-begotten children. As a mother of such a child and friends with other parents of merry-begottens, I can share that the magic of doing this is very powerful and an amazing alignment with the Celtic year, with child being born and one’s milk flowing at the time of Imbolg. Watching a child grow as a babe in the waxing sun of spring and summer is also amazing, though the additional dangers of modern cold and flu season are not to be envied in a winter birth, when most ancient peoples would have been more isolated from other families and thus from illnesses through the cold winter and especially following a birth. The healing powers of Brigid are all the more appreciated at this time, but when Bealtaine comes again, you can see that the gods have truly supported the life started a year prior and you’ve made it through.
For 19 years now, I’ve been celebrating Bealtaine, Beltane and May Day in various incarnations. Sometimes there will be a maypole, but not so much as in my early days of paganism when I was more Wiccan in practice. Today, and since I became a Druid and practiced an Irish spiritual path, there are always fires, preferably two but at least one, and the people can be found jumping the bale fire, especially for blessings upon the year and health, as well as for renewals of commitments between partners. I have long loved to rise before dawn and catch the first rays of sun as they ignite the dew with fires of summer, and I have often loved standing under the apple tree and shaking the dew soaked blossoms into a Bealtaine shower, which I do feel is a strong blessing of joy. As a new pagan, I did it to gather the dew and anoint my eyes that I might see the fae. Today, I gather the dew to anoint my eyes and ears, that I might see and hear the fae, the spirits, and to anoint my heart, that I might be blessed in creativity, expression and love, and to anoint my head, that I may be blessed with clear vision, understanding and the ignited flame of the dew soaked greens. And so may it be for you.
- Kondratiev, Alexei. 2003. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. Citadel Press: New York.
- Marshall, Ruth. 2003. Celebrating Irish Festivals: Calendar of Seasonal Celebrations. Hawthorn Press: Gloucestershire, UK.
- Ryan, Granger and Helmut Ripperger. 1941. “The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist.” The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. Arno Press: Longmans, Green & Co, 1941. pp. 321-327. Accessed online 5 May, 2016 at http://www.mcah.columbia.edu/courses/medmil/pages/non-mma-pages/text_links/gl_johnbaptist.html
- Telyndru, Jhenah (AW). 2005. Avalon Within: A Sacred Journey of Myth, Mystery, and Inner Wisdom. Llewellyn Publications: Woodbury, Minnesota.