Summer is icumen in! Beltane, celebrated at the beginning of May, heralds the arrival of longer days, warmer nights, and growth, growth, growth. Beltane is one of the oldest recorded Gaelic seasonal festivals. Records show that it has been celebrated for centuries at the beginning of summer with balefires, maypoles, town fairs, games, and feasting. As we sang in the mid-13th century:
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu;
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode nu;
(Spring has arrived,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
Purifying, Renewing Fire
Kicking off this season of plenty, flocks headed for the summer grazing fields were first driven between two large balefires. As the cattle passed through, they were purified by the fires and also protected against disease. The blazing fires (Bel-tinne may translate as Bel’s, or Beli’s fire) were lit on high hilltops in Ireland, such as the hill of Uisneach or Tara, while Druids chanted incantations and made offering to the god Beli. Hearth and candle fires would have been doused the night before Beltane so that new fires could be lit from the embers of the Bel fire. Besides blessing the flocks, these fires also purified and blessed the community. Townfolk and other animals bedecked with spring blooms also ran between the bonfires for luck, protection, and increase.
An article about the fires of Beltane on Wikipedia states “In the Scottish Highlands, food was cooked at the bonfire and there were rituals involving it. In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote that, in Perthshire, a caudle made from eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk was cooked on the bonfire. Some of the mixture was poured on the ground as a libation. Everyone present would then take an oatmeal cake. A bit of it was offered to the spirits to protect their livestock (one bit to protect the horses, one bit to protect the sheep, and so forth) and a bit was offered to each of the animals that might harm their livestock (one to the fox, one to the eagle, and so forth). Afterwards, they would drink the caudle.” [Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996. pp.218-225; Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Infobase Publishing, 2004. pp.40-43].
In contemporary times the fires are sometimes kindled from sacred woods of May, and typically hawthorn is one. Nimble-legged pagans may jump the balefire alone (for personal magic) or with a partner (for love magic). The emphasis on fertility and love are two prevalent themes of modern Beltane celebrations. Weaving the traditional maypole, a symbol of love and fertility, has become a standard focal point of most Wiccan Beltanes. Because fire danger is high in our area, Our Lady of the Woods and other groups have largely replaced fire dancing with maypole dancing.
Dancing the Maypole
Riding on the shoulders of the men, the pole is paraded around the festival grounds while women dig the hole into which it will be set. Occasionally the men sing a song complemented by the women who sing as they dig. The hole, decorated with flowers, awaits the pole. Once the pole is raised (with many a bawdy comment made during the endeavor), its ribbons are taken up by the dancers. Facing off in pairs, the dancers weave the ribbons while drummers and singers accompany the dance. If a May King and May Queen are part of the celebration, they sometimes get woven into the pole, too. Flowers are placed in between the ribbons. The end result is always beautiful no matter how many times the dancers end up going in wrong directions or under when they should have gone over. Dancing the maypole is powerful, enlivening and joyful.
Maypoles also represent gathering and community. In the old days a town would raise a pole at the town center or square. At the beginning of the summer, the town would gather to weave the pole, which would stay up until autumn. The pole was the local gathering place–merchants traded, markets came and went, lovers met and parted, and important town events were held, all with the maypole as the center of the action. Is it any wonder that many towns still have a square (or plaza) with some sort of monument in its center?
Fertility and Creativity
Two fertility figures, The Green Man and Jack-in-the Green are also popular at Beltane. They both represent the fecundity of the land, the greening of the landscape in spring and early summer. Green Man masks made of shrubbery are seen in many May Day festivals. Likewise, the legendary figure of Jack-in-the-Green is often a central character in May Day parades. Jack-in-the-Green, a spirit of the greenwood and trees, has been documented as part of summer mummer plays and Morris Dancers back to the 1500s. He has also been associated with the early folk hero Robin Hood.
The Magic of Beltane
At Beltane pagans work magic for personal abundance and fertility, as well as for growing an abundant garden, as it is a time to prepare the soil for planting. In New Mexico the last frost date is a few weeks past Beltane. Any magic associated with creativity is favored, as well as starting community building or projects. Wearing your most colorful combinations and donning a flower crown will help you get in the mood. Fresh flowers can easily be woven into a headpiece using pipe cleaners and florist wire. At your Beltane feast feature fresh berries, cream, and some Beltane Wine Punch (recipe from Jamie Wood and Tara Seefeldt’s The Wicca Cookbook, Recipes, Ritual, and Lore, p. 82). The recipe calls for woodruff. If it happens that you don’t have a woodruff growing nearby, buy some at a local herb store and place it in a tea infuser to make it easy to remove.
Beltane Wine Punch
(serves 4 to 6)
6 sprigs woodruff
2 fifths (1500 ml) dry white wine
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup brandy
2 cups champagne, chilled
Marinate woodruff in white wine for at least 1 hour. In a small saucepan, combine sugar and water to make a syrup. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar melts, about 2 minutes. Remove woodruff from wine, and add brandy, sugar syrup, and champagne. Adjust sweetness to taste.
If you are looking for more Beltane celebration ideas, pick up a copy of Beltane: Springtime Rituals, Lore, and Celebration by Raven Grimassi. Having trouble with your maypole? Here’s an article that will help you solve the three most common maypole blunders. To help you get in the dancing mood, listen to Loreena McKennitt’s Beltane Fire Dance, the tune Dance Around by the group Beltaine, and Lisa Thiel’s song Beltane (Lord and Lady Song). For the very brave, watch some Morris dancers!
1. Campenelli, Pauline and Dan. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. Llewellyn, 1993.
2. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford University Press, 1996.
3. Amber K and Azrael Arynn K, Candlemas: Feast of Flames, Llewellyn, 2001.
4. Nahmad, Claire. Earth Magic: A Wisewoman’s Guide to Herbal, Astrological, & Other Folk Wisdom. Destiny Books, 1994.
5. Pennick, Nigel. The Pagan Book of Days. Destiny Books, 1992.