The earth is in bloom. And Beltane, traditionally celebrated on the eve of the first of May, honors the budding world.
Beltane itself is an ancient Irish celebration, rich in ritual and reverence. It is one of the four primary Gaelic holidays and marks the beginning of the pastoral summer, when the livestock were traditionally driven from their winter feeding grounds into the summer pastures.
The sun, once again, plays a significant role in the celebration of Beltane. As the days just begin to grow longer, life returns to earth in colorful abundance and the livestock give birth to their young. As such, there has been a fertility connection and sexual undertone to both the ancient and modern celebrations of the holiday. While many of the holidays that we’ve discussed over the year have been focused on the harvest, Beltane is one of the few holidays that centers instead on the people and the animals that nourish them.
The earliest mentions of the festival are located in both the Tochmarc Emire (a portion of the ancient legends and mythology of Ireland) and the Sanas Cormaic (an ancient text regarding Gaelic and Celtic etymology). The writings provide instructions for how and when the day should be observed. One of the longest lasting traditions drawn from these texts is that of the Beltane fires: on the eve of Beltane, all other fires were extinguished throughout Ireland and great bonfires were ceremoniously lit in each community. Livestock would be driven between the fires to protect them from disease, and daring, love-struck couples would jump over smaller fires to promise their love to one another. As the fires died, people would cover their bodies with ash to protect themselves and take wood from the dying embers to reignite ritual fires in their own hearths at home. (All of this explains the origin of the word “Beltane,” which comes from the Celtic “God Bel” and the Gaelic word for fire, “teine.”)
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Beltane also commemorates the union of the Spring Goddess and the young Oak King. Promise ceremonies and weddings were commonplace at this time, as were ritual lovemaking and a tradition called handfasting. As the bonfires roared, couples would have their hands literally fastened together in a figure-eight knot (it’s where the term “tie the knot” originated from) and promise themselves to one anther. As the fires began to dwindle, couples would steal away into the surrounding forests to close the enchanted night intertwined in each other’s limbs.
How can you honor these old traditions and celebrate in modern times? Here are a few ideas…
- If the weather allows, take a walk outside on May 1st. Notice the beauty of the earth reawakening.
- Fill your home with candle light in the evening. Spend a moment alone, perhaps taking a bath with fragrant oils and honoring yourself, loving yourself and creating an evening of self-care.
- Create an intimate ritual with your partner. Light a fire in your hearth, take a moment to write words of gratitude and unconditional love, then bind one of your hands to each other’s…and let the moment carry you away into your proverbial magical woods.