Wiccan Holidays: What is Beltane?
Beltane is Here!
Welcome, my friend! Join us -- take a seat on the picnic blanket and toss your jacket aside.
Isn't it a beautiful day? Just breathe it all in— the shining sun, the blue skies, the lush grass. It just doesn't get any better than this, does it? Look at that lovely scene over there, of the dancers with their colorful ribbons weaving in and out around the pole. Cheerful, isn't it?
Me, I'm too tired to dance again. I danced around the bonfire till dawn. The heady scent of burning cedar and lavender is still in my hair. The drummers played that primal beat, and it just stirred my soul to make merry. You must join us for the sabbat feast! Have a cup of honey mead and toast with us—for it is now a time of celebration!
What are we celebrating? Why, the sabbat of Beltane, of course!
The Wiccan Wheel of the Year has come to a special place today. Nature is bursting with life as we transition into summer. The April showers have quenched the parched land to facilitate the greening, and the May flower buds are blooming on the branch. And, um… in case you haven’t noticed, the birds, the bees, all the animals, flowers, and even the people seem to be getting kind of frisky.
Celebrating Beltane: Variations
Names/spellings of Holiday
Celtic - May 1st
Beltane; Beltain, Beltine, Beltaine, Bealtaine, Bealltainn, Boaltinn, Boaldyn
Marked the beginning of summer
Wicca - Eve of April 30th through May 1st
May Eve (original, Gardnarian); later, Beltane
Marks the beginning of summer, and the sexual union of God and Goddess
English/generic - May 1st
English name for Beltane traditions, most of which survived well into the Christianization of Europe
German - Night of April 30th
Believed to be the night when Witches came out to celebrate the coming of summer
Czech Republic - April 30th
Witches are burned in effigy (in the form of rags and brooms) to bring winter to an end
Estonia - April 30th through May
Volbriöö (eve of); Kevadpüha (day)
Witches were believed to gather to celebrate summer
Finland - April 30 through May 1
General merrymaking to celebrate the season; drinking, feasting, parades
Roman - May 2nd
Bonfires in celebration of fertility Goddess
Roman - 3 day festival in early May
Honoring flower Goddess; celebrated with big orgies—and flowers!
Greek - Early May
The Goddess Athena was honored with spring cleaning" of her temple, feasting and prayers
Queen Guinevere's Maying
'Guinevere' by Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson
For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might...
History of Beltane
The Beltane that Wiccans celebrate today is rooted mostly in Celtic celebrations that marked the start of the summer season. It was one of the four Celtic annual festivals, which have been adopted into the Wiccan Wheel of the Year as the "Greater Sabbats."
Beltane marked the time of year when the livestock were driven to the summer pastures. Livestock was precious to the Celts because it ensured survival through the harsh winters. They were so precious that they rarely slaughtered livestock-- they primarily used it for dairy production, and only secondarily for meat.
The biggest fear at this time of year were the sídhe— those fairy folk could be very troublesome indeed. People feared their livestock would be stolen or cursed with a plague. Rituals that emerged were designed to protect the livestock and appease the wee folk so that they would not be too mischievous. Druids would light big bonfires and parade the Celts paraded the animals between them on their way to pasture. The fires were sacred and meant to purify and protect them.
People would also leap the fires for prosperity and fertility, and cook their foods on the fires to bring blessings. They would douse out their own hearths and candles at home, and relight them with an ember brought from the sacred fires. This would enable them to carry that protective, purifying fire into the home to continue to bless them.
These rituals were also designed to connect with the power of the growing sun, to ensure a prosperous agricultural year. The growing crops were another essential element to a family’s winter survival.
Many customs in celebration of the summer season evolved out of these gatherings. People would make floral wreaths and garlands to deck the home, the trees and bushes. They would include ribbons, shells and other decorative items.
People would visit wells they thought holy and say their prayers into them. They'd then toss coins or strips of cloth into wells in exchange for good health. The first water drawn on Beltane morn was considered a particularly potent elixir, as was the morning dew. People believed washing with it would make them appear more youthful and attractive.
Maypoles became such a common factor that they’re a prime symbol of the season. The Maypole is the ultimate phallic symbol— plunged into the hole of the earth and topped with a floral wreath. People tie ribbons to it and dance around it, weaving the ribbons together.
By the Middle Ages, in many areas of Northern Europe, the Eve of Beltane was thought to be a sabbat for Witches to meet and celebrate the coming of summer. It wasn't actually-- they were just good, old-fashioned Pagan customs. But Christians feared them, and rumors grew.
As Christianity spread, particularly Protestantism, these customs drew more and more criticism and were outlawed in many places. Such celebrations nearly died out altogether. Thankfully, the Pagan revival, with Wicca at the forefront, brought them back. Now, even non-Pagans revel in May Day-style celebrations at this time of year.
A Beltane Bonfire
Tell Us About You!
Your favorite way to celebrate Beltane is:
Wican Beltane Celebrations
In Wicca, Beltane is certainly rooted in the Celtic festivals but we have also borrowed from other traditions and made it our own. These types of spring rites were nearly universally held in Pagan cultures throughout the northern hemisphere in April and May.
Samhain is at the opposite end of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, and we see the two holidays as complementary—one celebrates life, the other death. Thus, these are the two absolute biggest holidays in our religion. For many solitaries, it’s too big a day to spend alone—a lot of Wiccans (and many Pagans in general) will head out to local group gatherings, camp outs or at least host parties for open-minded friends. Group rituals, feasting and maypole dances are fairly common at this time of year, usually on weekends nearest the holiday itself.
In Wiccan lore, this is the time when the God and Goddess are united. She becomes pregnant with His seed (which makes it possible for Him to be reborn later at the Winter Solstice). Some treat this as Their wedding day. With this, traditionally, Wiccans don’t hold weddings at Beltane -- some consider it ‘bad luck’ to compete with God and Goddess.
But it does make Beltane a time for celebrating unions— when two or more separate things join together to form a new and more complete whole. It’s not uncommon for lovers to spend part of their Beltane in private celebrations, but making love isn't the only union found at these fertility rites. You'll also see a lot of weaving going on. It may be weaving ribbons on a maypole, weaving floral wreaths crowns for your head, or weaving magical charms (such as this Witches Ladder spell found here). Weaving is symbolic for sacred unions—when separate things are brought together to create a new and more balanced whole.
Maypole Dancing on Village Green
May Day in America
Have a Blessed Beltane
Beltane has long been one of my favorite times of the year. When I lived in New York City, I looked forward to the huge, annual Pagan celebrations in Central Park— it was always amazing! Since moving from New York (many long year ago, now), I've spent many a Beltane at Pagan camp-outs at local state parks and nature preserves, where we danced into the wee hours of the morning around blazing bonfires to the beat of a dozen pounding drums.
There is an energy about this day that is palpable and powerful, which makes it a prime time for works of constructive magic (learn about constructive vs. destructive magic in this article here). It's a time we should stop and recognize that we're all strands on the web of life, and everything in nature - from the sprouting seed to humankind to the Gods themselves-- is connected.
Whether you’re spending it out with the Pagan community, or having a quiet, private celebration at home, I wish you a blessed Beltane!