Tonight is the beginning of Beltane, the holiday that celebrates the halfway point between spring and summer and the beginning of the warmer months. The actual cross quarter day falls at 3:28 am on May 5 this year, but the holiday is customarily celebrated on May 1, and celebrations of the equinoxes, solstices, and cross quarter days always begin at sunset on the day before. Sunset tonight is at 7:51 pm.
Traditionally, Beltane was the time of year when cattle were driven out to summer pastures. The Irish version of the name of the holiday is spelled Bealtaine and is pronounced with a by sound at the beginning and an emphasis on the n sound at the end. It is speculated that the name might come from a Celtic word meaning “bright fire,” a reference to the bonfires that were lit on Beltane eve. In some places, one large bonfire was built, around which the community gathered. In others, two fires were built and the livestock were driven between them to purify them from disease. There was also a custom of people jumping over the fires for protection and good fortune. Men about to get married, girls seeking husbands, and pregnant women hoping for an easy labor all leapt through the flames or stepped over the embers. When the fires died out, each household carried some of the embers back to kindle a fire in their own hearth. Some people also put the ashes from the fire on their faces to bring good luck. The Beltane fire was lit with the wood of nine sacred trees, but there is apparently only record of eight of the woods that were used: willow, hazel, alder, birch, ash, yew, elm, and oak.
Fire was thought to belong to the realm of the Sky and to have energy that rises upwards. While being protected by these forces was considered essential, it was no less important to receive protection from water, which was thought to belong to the realm of the Sea and to have energy that moves downward. So on Beltane day, it was customary to rise before dawn and bathe in morning dew, which was considered to have many magical, life-giving properties. It was said that girls who bathed their faces in the dawn dew would have beautiful complexions, and that running barefoot in the morning dew would bring good health for a year. And many May Day customs included sprinkling people with water, sometimes during ritual processions. In some areas, there was a practice of bathing in the sea the first three Sundays of May.
Flowers and herbs are also an important part of Beltane. Between sunset and sunrise on Beltane, children went out to gather yellow flowers, which were made into garlands and wreaths for doors, hung around the house, scattered on the threshold, worn as crowns, and brought to the sick and elderly. Yellow symbolized the life-giving power of the sun. During the May Day festivities, people traditionally drank mead, spiced honey wine, elderberry and rhubarb wines, and mead flavored with woodruff.
Today, Beltane is a time of music, dance, and for the enjoyment of nature. The themes of the holiday are sexuality, fertility, and creativity. Lighting candles, decorating your home with yellow flowers, wearing flower gardens, drinking homemade ales and herbal wines, and rising before dawn and spending time in a park or community garden are some ways that urban dwellers could celebrate May Day and the arrival of the warm weather.
Duff, Gail. Seasons of the Witch. Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2003.
Freeman, Mara. Kindling the Celtic Spirit. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.