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April 27, 2011

Beltane Festival Symbolizes Start of Summer

by Joy Richardson

Beltane is one of the greater sabbats of the pagan calendar and is celebrated on May 1 in the Northern Hemisphere. Beltane's polar opposite, Samhain, is celebrated on this day in the Southern Hemisphere.
Beltane marks the midpoint of the sun’s progress between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. Beltane symbolizes the start of summer, and is one of the most important festivals of the year.
Its origins lie among the Celtic people of Western Europe and was celebrated all across the British Isles, including England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In Ireland it was known as “Bealtaine”, in Scotland “Bealtunn”, and in Wales as “Galan Mae”.

Historically, this is the time of year when crops began to grow, when animals bore their young, and when people came out of houses after being cooped up during the long dark months of winter. In olden times the coming of fair weather and longer daylight hours were most welcome and cause for celebration.

Building Sacred Fires

Beltane is one of the four great “fire festivals” that quarter the turning points of the Celtic year. In preparation of Beltane, the

Celts would build two large bonfires called “Bel-fires”, which would be dedicated to the Celtic sun god Bel in thanks for shining his blessings and protection.
Beltane Fire Festival- Edinburgh, Scotland
Traditionally the fires would be built using nine of the sacred woods of the Druids: Oak, Ash, Rowan, Birch, Alder, Willow, Hazel, Holly and Hawthorn. According to the Druids, Hawthorn was considered a sacred tree and most associated with the month of May.

On the Eve of Beltane the two fires be would be lit by the Druids, leaving enough room between the two fires so that cattle and other livestock could be ritually led between them, an act that purified and protected them from disease during the coming year. While the cattle and other livestock were led away to their summer grazing lands, torches of dried sedge, gorse and heather would also be lit and carried around their barns and stables, another act of purification.

Bringing in the May

Water also has a strong association with Beltane, and more specifically morning dew, which was seen as sacred and magical. One custom was to drink from a well before sunrise on Beltane morning to insure good health and good fortune.
Another popular custom associated with Beltane is “bringing in the May”, when people from the villages would venture into the fields and forests to gather seasonal flowers. These would be used to decorate their homes and later to dress themselves in readiness for the festivities.

On returning laden with flowers they would stop at each house along the way to sing songs of spring and leave gifts of flowers, they would customarily be greeted with the best food and drink that the house had to offer.

Choosing the May Queen

Beltane Festival- Danny William
One of the principal characters associated with the Beltane festivities is the “Queen of May”. The May Queen was usually a young woman selected from the previous years “Maidens in Waiting” and crowned with a ring of fresh flowers.
Many old accounts mention both a May Queen and King being chosen, and that they reigned from sundown on the eve of Beltane to sunset on Beltane day.
Among their duties were to lead the Beltane procession around the village, and start the day’s festivities and games.

Dancing the Maypole

Perhaps the most recognized symbol associated with the Beltane festivities is the Maypole. In the old days just before Beltane, clan members would go into the woods and cut down a tall tree. Stripped of all its branches, the pole would be erected in the village square and decorated with long brightly colored ribbons, leaves, flowers and wreaths.

During the festivities an even number of young men and maidens would be selected to dance the Maypole. The circle of dancers would start as far out from the pole as the length of ribbon allowed, men facing clockwise and maidens facing counterclockwise.

Once the dance began, each would move in the direction they faced, those on the inside ducking under the ribbon of those on the outside, while those passing on the outside raiseed their ribbons to slide over those on the inside. As the dance progressed the ribbons weaved into a pattern down the pole. The success of the pattern was said to indicate the success of the year's harvest.

Offerings of Bannocks

Food played an important part in the celebrations. On Beltane it was customary to bake small scones called “Bannocks”. These were made from oat or barley flour worked into dough with just a little water and no leavening, then filled with sweetmeat and spices. Traditionally one of the cakes would be burned or marked with ashes.
The recipient of the burnt cake would be considered bad luck, and required to jumped over a small fire three times to purify and cleanse him or herself of any ill fortune. Offerings of bannocks and drink were traditionally left on doorsteps and roadways for fairies as an offering.