The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth
to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees
bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart
that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty
deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage,
that lusty month of May.
~ from Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
Well, I can finally say that Spring is here! Of course, this was 'officially' the case over a month ago, but the weather is now at last complying!
Bealtaine has its roots as a Gaelic festival that was celebrated in ancient Ireland, Scotland, as well as the Isle of Man. Many believe that it was the time that marked the light half of the year, while Samhain was the start of the dark half.
There were various rites that surrounded Bealtaine, to celebrate the coming of summer; to ensure the fertility of crops and livestock, as well as encourage the overall prosperity of the community. Many of these rites involved fire.
According to Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough, Bealtaine was the highest holiday of the Druids, and sometimes human sacrifices would be held on this day.
He speaks of a long tradition in the Scottish Highlands (which were still happening in his time), where bonfires were lit on Bealtaine on the top of hills. He also states that folks would put out all fires the night before on May Eve (April 30th), and all hearths would be re-lit from the sacred need fire on Bealtaine.
In Ireland fires were lit for cattle to go around (or through) for blessings, as well as people in the community. After the influence of Christianity, it was bad luck for the need fire to go out on Bealtaine, and the fire could only be re-lit from the a priest's hearth. The ashes from the need fire were sprinkled over the threshold of the homes in a community as a blessing (Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde).
Today many Pagans and secular Bealtaine festivals still involve bonfires.
Sacred wells also played a pretty important role in some areas. The online text Land, Sea and Sky (a Celtic Reconstructionist text) claims that the first water taken from a well or spring after sunrise on Bealtaine morning had curative and protective qualities, and the water from sacred wells and springs were most effective at this time.
In The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs by T. Sharper Knowlson, he describes a ritual done on the first of May at a sacred well near Tullie Bealtaine in Scotland:
On Beltane morning superstitious people go to this well and drink of it; then they make a procession round it nine times; after this they in like manner go round the temple. So deep-rooted is this heathenish superstition in the minds of many who reckon themselves good Protestants, that they will not neglect these rites even when Beltane falls on a Sabbath (a Christian holy day).
In the same region of Scotland (Perthshire) children were submerged into the Lady of Lawers Well on Bealtaine under the light of the sun, to benefit from the supposed remedial powers of the Creideag Bheg and Creideag Mhór springs. (Survivals in Belief Among the Celts by George Henderson).
One of the most popular customs associated with the first of May is dancing around the phallic maypole.The maypole's origins probably hark back to a more ancient time, but from what I understand, the earlies record comes from around the 16th century. It is originally a Germanic custom that later spread to other areas like England, Wales, the Scottish Lowlands, and eventually North America.
Another common sight at many May Day celebrations are Morris Dancers, especially in England, Wales, and North America. Here is a nifty little video of a Morris side on Bealtaine (although I am personally more fond of Border Morris myself):
And another for good measure!
There are tonnes of fantastic lore and superstitions surrounding Bealtaine, much of which can be found in nursery rhymes, such as Mother Goose:
The fair maid who, the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree
Will ever after handsome be.
Besides collecting the makings of a 'beauty potion', the Hawthorn blossoms were worn by folks celebrating May Day to represent fertility and new growth, and cuttings were hung in houses to bring prosperity and protection.
Another tree that was used at this time of year was the Rowan; in places like the Isle of Man, Scotland, and Wales, Rowan branches were hung in barns and homes to protect people and livestock against the curses of witches.
In Ireland, Marsh Marigold was made into wreaths and garlands to hang in houses, and decorated cattle to keep Faeries at bay, and was also used in divination.
In Germany a May wine is made from Sweet Woodruff (see recipe below), and was thought to bestow fertility and luck to the drinker. It can also be worn in a Bealtaine ritual or to decorate a Bealtaine altar. And if you want to attract Faeries, give the Common Bluebell a try.
It's definitely a good day to collect plants to make protective amulets and for healing, as well doing prosperity magic and divination. Many people also like to get married and handfasted on Bealtaine.
I know one thing that I will be doing this year is blessing the farm.
Here is a blessing from a book that is a staple influence for my practice (sans the Christian tone):
The Bealtaine Blessing
Bless O Threefold true and bountiful,
Myself, my spouse, and my children,
My tender children and their beloved mother at their head.
Everything within my dwelling or in my possession,
All kine and crops, all flocks and corn,
From Hallow Eve to Beltane Eve,
With goodly progress and gentle blessing,
From sea to sea, and every river mouth,
From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.
Be the Three Persons taking possession of all to me belonging,
Be the sure Trinity protecting me in truth;
Oh! satisfy my soul in the words of Paul,
And shield my loved ones beneath the wing of Thy glory,
Shield my loved ones beneath the wing of Thy glory.
Bless everything and every one,
Of this little household by my side;
Place the cross of Christ on us with the power of love,
Till we see the land of joy,
Till we see the land of joy,
What time the kine shall forsake the stalls,
What time the sheep shall forsake the folds,
What time the goats shall ascend to the mount of mist,
May the tending of the Triune follow them,
May the tending of the Triune follow them.
Thou Being who didst create me at the beginning,
Listen and attend me as I bend the knee to Thee,
Morning and evening as is becoming in me,
In Thine own presence, O God of life,
In Thine own presence, O God of life.
~ Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmicheal
If you are thinking of setting up a Bealtaine altar, some plants that would be appropriate to decorate it with (besides the ones already mentioned) are Apple blossoms, Ivy, Lilacs, Pussywillows, Gorse, Dandelions, and Honeysuckle.
Other things that you might want to try are colourful ribbons, freshly sheered sheep's wool, a handmade nest, candles (especially green, pink, purple, white, and yellow), things that you would use in your garden (seeds, seedlings, a hand tool, or a pretty pot), and crystals (Moss Agate, Amber, Rose Quartz, Emerald and Carnelian would all be suitable).
Here are some photos for inspiration ;)
And lastly, here are a few recipes for your Bealtaine/May Day feast!
Maiwein (German May Day Wine)
Fertility Bread (!!!)
Wild Irish Nettle Soup
Pork Tenderloin with Potatoes and Apples
Cream Pie and Marigold Custard
Fruit Cream Tarts
Fried Mustard Greens
Capon in Honey and Milk