Beltane: Season of Light and Possibilities
The Celtic fire festival of Beltane begins tonight at sunset. Technically, it will end tomorrow, May 1st, at sunset. In Irish, though, Bealtaine is the word for the entire month of May, and some people consider Beltane as the period of time from May Day until Lughnasa (August 1st). Regardless which one of those perspectives you chose, Beltane, like the other three Celtic fire festivals, marks the start of a new season. On the Celtic calendar, it is the beginning of summer. Beltane also is the beginning of the light half of the year (the dark half begins at Samhain). This is a joyful season, full of warmth, growth, and possibilities. As we come out of the cold greyness of winter and begin to believe there will be an end to the Covid-19 pandemic darkness, the sunshine and hope of Beltane are exactly what we need.
Purification, protection, and fertility are the major themes of Beltane. As part of the ritual of the feast, cattle were driven between two bonfires. This was done to purify the animals, increase their fertility, and protect them from illness. The cattle were then let out to pasture for the first time since being brought in for the winter. While this tradition is dying out (if not altogether gone), other folk customs associated with Beltane continue.
Holy Wells and Wishing Trees
Fire is not the only element which can cleanse and protect. Water can as well. It is also essential to life and good health. A Beltane custom is to visit holy wells. People wash their hands or face with the water or take a little home to use for blessing the sick. According to tradition, this will give the person good health throughout the year. If you don’t have a holy well near you, you’re not out of luck. Folklore says that washing your face with morning dew on May Day will give the same benefit. Of course you should always give thanks when you receive a gift, so people leave small offerings at the holy wells. These offerings usually are coins and / or flowers.
But Beltane is not just about health. It is about hopes and dreams. Even today, in Scotland and especially in Ireland, people visit wishing trees on Beltane. Wishing trees (aka May Bushes) are invariably hawthorns. Usually it’s not a good idea to disturb a hawthorn as these trees are said to be an entrance to the Otherworld and are guarded fiercely by faeries. However, the custom on Beltane is to hang ribbons or colored cloth from the branches of a hawthorn. Each ribbon represents a wish. If the cloth is tied carefully and respectfully, and the tree’s guardian is properly thanked, the hope is the petitioner will have his or her wish granted. The color of each ribbon tends to be symbolic: red or pink for romance, blue for peace, and so forth. Be sure, though that you don’t mistake a blackthorn for a hawthorn! Blackthorn trees are guarded by moon faeries who ordinarily react badly to humans messing with their trees. They take particular offense on Beltane and Samhain and their wrath on those two days is said to be ferocious.
Speaking of the Good People, folklore says that they are especially mischievous on Beltane. In fact, the lore advises humans to stay inside after sunset on April 30th until at least noon on May Day. If you must go out, it’s a good idea to bring a bit of iron with you as this, supposedly, repels faeries. Alternatively, you can tuck a leaf from a mountain ash or a yellow flower, such as a dandelion, in your pocket. They too are believed to protect against faerie magic. But whatever you do, for heaven’s sake, don’t fall asleep outdoors on Beltane. People who have, stories claim, have found themselves spirited away to the Otherworld.
Sorry to say, though, staying indoors isn’t a guarantee of safety from faeries either. As a precaution, Irish folklore recommends scattering yellow flowers outside your house and across your thresholds. The Fair Folk are said to detest the color and will be repelled by it. According to the lore, yellow flowers will protect your home and family not only from faerie mischief but from malignant forces in general. Note, however, that the flowers are to be placed outside, as placing them inside the house brings very bad luck. On the other hand, it’s customary in Ireland to place the white flowers from a rowan tree on windowsills on May Day to keep evil spirits from entering the house.
Dairy is an important element of Beltane. One way to appease the faeries is to place a bowl of milk or cream on your doorstep. This, the lore says, might actually win a blessing from the faeries for you and your family. Custom also recommends that you give some kind of dairy to
your neighbor. You will be rewarded, according to the lore, in some way for your generosity. If, however, you are stingy with your dairy, your cows will dry up. Perhaps if you don’t own any cows, you needn’t worry. But I wouldn’t count on it.
Be sure to guard your dairy closely on Beltane as, according to Irish folklore, it is in danger from cailleachs, witch-like hags who go into houses and steal dairy products. They also have been said to sour milk and dry up cows. The great news is that the yellow flowers you scattered to keep the faeries away will work just as effectively against the cailleachs. (Note: in Scotland, Cailleach is singular as it signifies Bearla, the goddess of winter).
Dairy is good for more than just consuming. It is said that the first butter made from cow’s milk on May Day makes an effective salve for cuts and other wounds. Which is a lucky thing as you will see below.
Be careful with knives and sharp objects on May 1st. According to folklore, cuts and wounds gotten on Beltane are difficult to heal. Thankfully, the feast day is said to be the best day to pick healing herbs. These, the lore claims, are the most potent and effective you’ll find all year, and they’ll come in handy right away. Picking an herb at random on May Day is said to cure warts. Eating nettle soup three times in May, starting on Beltane, is said to ease the pain of rheumatism.
Planting Seeds of Hope
The land is believed to be its most fertile during the season of Beltane, so now is a good time to start planting. You can take this advice literally or figuratively. With the weather getting warmer and sunshine reaching its apex by the summer solstice (June 20th), it is a good time to work in your garden. It also is a great time to begin new projects and plant metaphorical seeds in order to bring your dreams to fruition. No matter your age or situation, this is the season of possibilities and hope. So let the light embrace you and give you energy for a new beginning.
Wishing you joy and health. Slainte!
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