Beltane: The Dawning of Summer
“Summer’s here / and the time is right / for dancing in the streets.” * Are you ready for summer? I know the calendar most of us in the northern hemisphere use says the official start of summer is June 21st but, in the Celtic year, it begins at Beltane (May 1st). (Apologies to my friends in the southern hemisphere who are preparing for winter). Beltane is one of the four Celtic fire festivals. Each one marks the beginning of a season. This festival is a joyful one, associated with light, warmth, growth, and possibilities. It is such an important part of Celtic life that it isn’t always limited to one day. In Irish, the entire month of May is named for it (Beltaine), and some people consider it a season lasting until the next fire festival, Lughnasa (August 1st). Below are elements, themes, and folklore that are part of Beltane.
Bonfires are always lit on fire festivals. At Beltane, traditionally, two fires were lit. Cattle—an important element of Celtic culture—were walked between the two fires. This was done to purify them and protect them from disease before sending them out to pasture for the first time after winter’s end.
Fire remains an important symbol of Beltane as it represents, the sun, light, and warmth. The Celtic year has two halves, one dark and one light. Beltane marks the beginning of the light half of the year. The hours of daylight have been steadily increasing since winter solstice and will reach their pinnacle at summer solstice, the longest day of the year. So, Beltane is full of light and warmth.
It is also full of potential and possibilities. Seeds planted in spring are growing, and summer presents a new opportunity for sowing. Beltane is associated with growth and fertility. This, of course, refers to the land and nature but the Celtic thought applies to humans as well. Fire, in this sense, can be symbolic of the passion of human love that results in new life.
It may seem odd that fire’s opposite, water, is also associated with Beltane but the ancient Celts knew that both were essential to human life and well-being. There are wonderful folk traditions and lore about the festival and water. One that is, unfortunately, fading away, is the custom of First Water.
Celtic folklore claims that the first water drawn from a well on May Day (Beltane) is powerful. It can bring protection, good luck, and even good health. Some of the water was set aside to use throughout the year to bless the sick, animals, and property. First water was so highly valued that farmers and landowners would stay up all night (sometimes armed) to keep anyone from stealing it and to protect it from faerie mischief. It was vital to guard the water as it could do great harm if it fell into enemy hands.
If you don’t have a well, it is still possible to obtain some of the benefits of first water. According to folklore, washing your hands and face with the dew on Beltane morning will bring you blessings and good health. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to save it for later in the year.
A folk tradition related to first water continues to be practiced by some in the Celtic countries of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. This custom is the visiting of holy wells. Water is taken from the well and used for the same purposes as first water. In gratitude for the blessings of health and safety obtained through the water, an offering is given in return. These offerings usually are in the form of coins thrown in the well (similar to coins tossed in wishing wells) or bouquets of flowers.
While at the well, many people will tie ribbons or bits of cloth from a hawthorn tree usually found growing next to a sacred well. This practice is rich in folklore. Hawthorns are considered faerie trees and are believed to be portals to the Otherworld. Normally, disturbing a hawthorn in any way is a dangerous practice. Folklore says they are guarded by faeries and tree spirits who will vent their wrath on anyone who harms the tree. Beltane is the one exception to this belief. The folk practice is to tie ribbons or colored cloths to the tree, each one representing a wish, in the hope that the faeries will grant the wishes. If you partake in this custom, though, be sure to treat the tree with the greatest respect and thank the tree guardian for considering your request.
Anyone who knows the tiniest bit about Celtic folklore will know that faeries play a central role in folk beliefs. The customs and lore associated with Beltane are no exception. In fact, according to the lore, the Good People run rampant on this day. In fact, they start the evening before. Traditionally, Celtic days go from sunset to sunset, so Beltane technically begins at sundown on April 30th. And that’s when the faeries come out in force to get up to mischief. The lore advises you to lock up your animals, especially the cattle, and keep yourself indoors as well until at least noon on May Day.
Before letting the cattle out to pasture (and never before noon on May 1st), tie a yellow ribbon or flower to their tails. This, it is said, will keep the faeries from stealing them.
Yellow flowers are your best friend on Beltane. It is said that the color yellow is as repulsive to faeries as cold iron (faerie kryptonite). Celtic folklore suggests scattering yellow flowers, such as dandelions or primroses, all around the outside of your property to protect it and yourselves from the Good People. You’d be wise, as well, to place the flowers on your doorstep and hang them over the barn door. But never bring yellow flowers inside the house! That will cause massive bad luck. Instead, it is customary on May Day to place white rowan flowers on windowsills as this will keep evil spirits from entering the house.
If you must go out on Beltane, tuck a yellow flower or a rowan leaf inside your pocket to protect you from faerie mischief. Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep outside on May Day or the faeries might carry you away to the Otherworld.
One last thing you can do on Beltane to protect against faerie mischief is to put a bowl of milk or cream on your doorstep as an offering to the Fair Folk.
Dairy and Cailleach
Dairy plays a featured role on Beltane. The Gentry will be happy to find it on your porch, but the Cailleach will come into the house looking for it. The Cailleach is the goddess of winter in Scottish folklore (she is also called Bearla) but in other Celtic folklore, a Cailleach is a witch-like old hag who goes from house to house in Beltane, seeking to steal dairy. She also causes mischief to cows, so be on the lookout! Rowan blossoms inside the house, as mentioned above, will prevent her from entering your home. You might want to hang some in the barn as well.
Celtic folklore advises giving some of your dairy (whether milk, cheese, or butter) to your neighbor on Beltane. If you do, your kindness will be rewarded by faerie blessings. If you don’t, they will curse your stinginess and cause your cows to dry up.
There is more folklore associated with this wonderful fire festival but, hopefully, you enjoyed this quick survey. However, Beltane is about so much more than folklore and customs. The themes associated with it—warmth, light, growth, fertility, potential, and possibilities—offer material to reflect upon, if you are so inclined. As we enter into this season of light, I wish you joy, hope, and abundant blessings.
*From the song, “Dancing in the Street” written by Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter.
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Slan go foil!