Beltane For The Family
Updated: Apr 18
Beltane | May Day | Cétshamhain
For those observing the Wheel of the Year, May 1st is Beltane - a celebration of the first day of summer. It also marks the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. By now, the days are getting noticeably longer and warmer.
Historically, Beltane is celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man as a Gaelic May Day festival. Today it is observed by Galician, Irish, Scottish and Manx people, Wiccans, Celtic pagans and new age Norse pagans. Beltane is also known as Cétshamhain. During this time, farmers drive their cattle into the summer pastures and perform rituals to protect the cattle, crops and people and encourage growth.
Many areas around the world have different celebrations and versions similar to this. Some areas of Britain and Europe also share similar customs. A similar celebration of Beltane for old ways Norse pagans is Sígrblót, which was on the last full moon on April 6, 2023. Next Sígrblót is April 24, 2024. It is always on the fourth full moon after the new moon, after the winter solstice.
Historical Sources of Beltane
These stones include some of the earliest Irish literature and important events in Irish lore. Dating back to the 4th century, they are inscribed in Ogham symbols, also called the Celtic tree alphabet.
Medieval text from Gaelic Ireland. The Sanas Cormaic mentions May 1, marking the beginning of summer. It also shares the experience of druids lighting two fires with great incantations and walking cattle between them to protect them from disease.
This ancient piece of Irish literature explains the 'lore of places.' It includes a tale of a hero who lights a fire lasting seven days. Historians argue the relevance of the story to Beltane. Some theorize the story exists to preserve Beltane rituals, and others theorize it is modelled after legends in the Sanas Cormac and expanded on creatively. This legend can be found in the Book of Leinster and the Rennes manuscript.
The 7th-century historian, Geoffrey Keating, writes a sacrifice is offered to a god named Beil each Beltane in medieval Ireland during a great gathering at the Hill of Uisneach.
20th-century Uisneach excavations find evidence of large fires and charred bones used for ritual significance.
Peblis to the Play is a medieval performance from the 15th-16th century. It comes from the Maitland manuscripts and mentions the celebration of Beltane in a town called Peebles.
Historic Beltane Customs
1) Special Bonfires
Bonfires are an essential part of observing Beltane. Farmers would walk their cattle around the fire or embers and sometimes jump over the blaze with them. Households would also douse their hearth fires and re-light them with the community's Beltane fire. This is believed to give protection to the home and livestock. 2) Feast
Communities gather for a feast. Some of the food and drink would be offered to the aos sí. The aos sí are similar to fairies or elves.
3) May Flower Decorations
During Beltane, white and yellow May flowers and wreaths decorate doors, windows and byres and are strung together and placed on livestock. A branch or thorn bush may also be decorated with flowers, ribbons, bright shells and lights.
4) Visit Magic/Holy Wells
Legend has it, the dew on wells has magical properties that help a person maintain youthfulness, obtain beauty or help a person grow a beard.
Many of these historical traditions are supposed to protect practitioners from natural and supernatural harm, appease spirits and fairies, and celebrate the festival's optimism and fertility.
Beltane Activities For The Family
The following activities are a collection of activities throughout the ages, including modern times.
1. Light A Force Fire
A British tradition is lighting a bonfire using the friction of wood. Igniting a force fire naturally is sacred. Furthermore, daubing yourself with the ashes from this sacred fire protects the receiver from harmful influences.
2. Bake A Beltane Bannock
Beltane bannock is a traditional food described as an oatmeal cake or flatbread. For every kind of animal you wish to protect, one piece of bread needs to be offered to spirits to protect livestock. More pieces of bannock would be offered to animals that may want to harm your livestock in hopes they will be appeased and leave your farm alone.
3. Drink Caudel
Caudel is a drink made from eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk, traditionally made over a bonfire. A bit would be poured on the ground before being shared among attendants.
4. Host A Feast
Cook a fire feast, or at least a main. Traditionally lamb would be the main part of the meal. The bannock ritual would take place at the feast, followed by the caudel, and then the attendees would enjoy their share.
5. Make Floral Decorations
Stringing loose flowers together, create white and yellow flower garlands and wreaths to decorate the front door and windows to attract good luck to your home. If you are a farmer, you can also lay flowers among animals to help encourage abundance (good milk, butter, etc.).
6. Make A May Stick
Go for a walk and find a suitable branch to decorate with ribbons, flowers and shells. Place it over your house, either on your roof, door or windows.
7. Dance The Maypole
Decorate a tree or bush in the same fashion as the May stick. You may replace the tree/bush with a Maypole instead. Some traditions include a decorating competition where people would try to make the most beautiful design for people to sing and dance around.
8. Appease The Fairies
Fairies have a reputation for stealing dairy products. Some customs were designed to ward off or appease them, like attaching milk pails to May poles or leaving milk out on the porch if you live nearby a fairy tree.
9. Find A Well Leave offerings of coin or cloth on a well while walking from east to west. This is thought to bring health to performer. Some believe the first person who draws water from the well the day of Beltane will become very lucky. Additionally, during Beltane maidens would roll in the dew of the well to maintain youthfulness and heal skin ailments. Men would wash their face in it to help him grow a beard.
10. Leave A Gift For Your Ancestors
Cake and drink should be left for your ancestors the night of May Day. It's believed ancestors who died abroad will visit family and friends this night.
Did You Know...
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James George Frazer. The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion
Cormac. Sanas Cormaic (1830 -1909) Three Irish glossaries : Cormac's glossary, codex A, O'Davoren's glossary, and A glossary to the calendar of Oengus the Culdec
Keating, Geoffrey. The History of Ireland - Translated by Edward Comyn and Patrick S. Dinneen
Rennes Dindsenchas, RC xv. 313-314. (Rennes manuscript) - Translated by Whitley Stokes