Beltane – the wild and wonderful festival of May

The lessons of May are about freedom, about energy and about determination. It’s a dynamic time – not just of growth but of destruction too. As Shan, pagan priestess and therapist says, “Freedom is stressful – it means making decisions, balancing opportunities, it means the freedom to break.” She points out that many marriages and partnerships cannot take the sheer scrutiny of May and break up around this time. It’s also a season when many people choose to die. “It’s a natural time to end things,”she says, “it’s like new energy being put into an old vessel. If the vessel isn’t strong enough to take the energy, it will break.”

Of course, this all ties in with the principal festival of May which is May-day or, in the ancient calendar, Beltane. No point in being coy about it, Beltane is the great sex festival of the pagan year. The maypole is a blatant phallic symbol plunging down into the fertile (female) Earth. It is said that the pole also stands for the movement of energy between heaven and earth, the vital energy of the sky coming down to combine with the growing Earth which brings about the fresh new upsurge of spring. As an interesting aside, it appears dowsers can detect spiral energy patterns in the places where may poles used to stand.

All kinds of greenery were used to celebrate this vibrant festival. Houses were decked with the fresh branches and leaves of spring -why not revive the custom and decorate the house with garlands and wreaths or simply make sure you have plenty of flower arrangements using masses of greenery and leaves in place of stiff carnations. You could even follow the old custom of going “a-Maying”, bringing in armfuls of the freshly flowering hawthorn. However be sure to obey the old rule that the blossoms only stay in the house for the one day. Branches of rowan can be picked too and placed over your front door as a protection. Or twist a wreath from birch twigs and give it to your beloved – a traditional gift at this time.

In the old days Beltane was also a great fire festival – like Halloween. Our ancestors had a practical use for the fire – they burned magical and medicinal herbs in it and drove their livestock through the smoke to fumigate them against illness. But fire is exciting as well as purifying and, above all, Beltane is an exciting time, almost a dangerous time. People jumped through the fire – not necessarily a custom I would advise you reinstate unless you are pretty agile. If you don’t have access to anywhere to enjoy a large bonfire then light a festive fire in your grate. Traditionally the Beltane fire was lit with a bundle containing three pieces each of nine different types of wood – birch (for fertility and the Goddess); oak (for the male principle or God); rowan (for life and protection against evil); willow (to represent death); hawthorn (for purity and purification); hazel (for wisdom); applewood (for love); vine (for joy) and fir (for rebirth, the symbol of immortality).

While you watch the fire burn, toast the fresh new year with a May bowl – simply place a few flowering sprigs of woodruff in a bowl and pour over a bottle of white wine and a wineglass of strawberry wine or strawberry liqueur. Mix and sweeten if necessary.


Excerpted from The Natural Year – click on the cover below for more information or to buy


Photo by Frank Huang on Unsplash

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