Wishing Trees and Holy Wells: An Irish Beltane
Last week’s post discussed the Celtic fire festival of Beltane. This particular Celtic feast is so important and so steeped in traditions that a second post is needed to do it justice. The celebration technically takes place on May 1st (aka May Day) but the Irish call the entire month of May Bealtaine. And they have a wealth of customs and beliefs associated with Beltane.
In addition to walking cattle between two bonfires to purify and protect them (see last week’s post), there are two other major components of an Irish Beltane: wishing trees and holy wells.
A primary Irish May Day custom is to tie colored ribbons to Hawthorn trees (aka the May Bush). Please note that Hawthorn trees ordinarily should not be disturbed. According to Celtic lore, these trees guard the entrance to the faerie world. Disrespecting a Hawthorn in any way will lead to the wrath of the faeries (a dangerous thing! Click here to learn more.) Nevertheless, on Beltane, the Irish tie strips of cloth or ribbons from Hawthorn trees. Each ribbon represents a wish. Often symbolic colors are used: red for love, blue for peace, gold for money, and so forth. On second thought, the faeries detest the color yellow so you might want to use green to represent money. Apparently, the faeries are tolerant of this practice and, perhaps, even grant a wish here and there. If you decide to try this out for yourself, be sure to tie the cloth on with care and respect, then graciously thank the Tree Guardian afterwards. Click here to see an Irish wishing tree covered with Beltane ribbons.
Before you hang any ribbons, though, be sure you know your trees. You don’t want to mess with a Blackthorn tree, especially at Beltane! Blackthorns are inhabited and guarded by moon faeries, a particularly ferocious bunch! They don’t take kindly to humans disturbing their tree any day of the year, but they consider it an outrage on the feasts of Beltane and Samhain. Any fool-hearty soul who wants to test out this theory should be sure to know a Fairy Doctor who can mitigate the results of whatever curses the Fair Folk throw down on the fool’s head. (Even with a Fairy Doctor on call, I wouldn’t risk it.)
Wishing trees are usually found near holy wells, and visiting a holy well is another Beltane practice. People leave little offerings of flowers or small personal possessions, such as brooches or prized pens. Some others walk clockwise around the well while praying for good health.
Water is very important on Beltane and not just at holy wells. Ireland was—and to an extent still is—quite rural. Many farms have a well and, if your farm does, a practice called First Water should be observed. Irish folklore teaches that the first water drawn from a well on May Day has strong power in it. An old Beltane tradition is for the farmer or land owner to stay up all night, guarding the well. He or she wants to be the first to draw the water on Beltane as this will bring the person protection and good luck. Also, some of the water is set aside to be used throughout the year for blessing animals, the sick, and property. It’s vital that the water not be drawn by a stranger or an enemy as it can do great harm in the wrong hands. Also, the well’s owner wants to protect the water from faerie mischief.
Don’t have a well? Don’t worry. It’s said you can get good health for the year by rubbing your face with dew on Beltane morn.
Want protection from malicious forces? To be protected from the evil plans of witches, burn some Rowan wood in the fireplace on May Day morning. Placing Rowan flowers on windowsills and doorsteps is said to keep evil spirits from entering the house.
Concerned about faeries? You should be as they run free and get up to all sorts of mischief from sundown on April 30th to sunset on May 1st. To protect your house and family, scatter yellow flowers, such as primroses or furze flowers in your yard and around the outside of your house. Put a bouquet of the flowers on your doorstep or drop the petals across your front threshold. Better yet, leave an offering of milk or cream on the stoop. The faeries might leave behind a blessing for you and your family.
Beltane is strongly associated with cows and dairy. The first butter made from cow’s milk on May Day is thought to make an effective salve for cuts and other wounds. This is good because Irish lore teaches that injuries or illnesses gotten on Beltane are hard to cure. Thankfully, May Day also is said to be the best day for picking medicinal herbs. Eating nettle soup three times in May, starting on Beltane, is reputed to ease rheumatism, and plucking an herb at random on May 1st is given as a cure for warts.
Perhaps the best medicine is to remember what Beltane is about. It is the start of summer. Winter darkness is gone. The light now rules. So cast off anything that is keeping you in gloom and shadow. Move into the warm, hope, and joy of the season of Beltane!
Thanks for reading! Next week’s post will be about the Celtic Tree Sign of the Hawthorn. See you then! In the meantime, please LIKE and SHARE the post. Sign up and SUBSCRIBE to have the blog delivered to your inbox each Friday. It’s FREE! And please COMMENT below. I’d love to hear from you.
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