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May Day History: An Invitation From the Sun
Celebrating life, light, and love at Beltaine,
the old Celtic name for May Day


BY: Mara Freeman

 

The First of May sounds a clarion call announcing the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere. The sun is in its ascendancy, pouring light and warmth onto the Earth, whose creatures bask in the joyous tide of burgeoning life, sensuality, fertility, and abundance. From Scandinavia to Scotland, from Hawaii to China, people come together to celebrate the irresistible rising of the life-force as they are touched by the warmth and light of the sun. There is a promise of love and a reminder of the constant greening and renewal of life.

For those who follow an Earth-based spiritual tradition, this is a sacred time of the year, celebrated in ways that promote a joyful communion both with each other and with the Green World of nature. Although the practices of modern pagans, Wiccans, Druids, and other groups may differ, in general Beltaine is a time of connection, of honoring the "three Ls:" life, light, and love. ("Beltaine" is the Gaelic spelling; it's also known as "Beltane.")

Much of the inspiration for modern practices is derived from the tradition of the Celtic peoples of the northwest European fringe for whom this festival has always been particularly important. The early Celts divided the year into two halves: the light and the dark, summer and winter, to mark the spiralling wheel of time. To celebrate these times of transition, the Celts established two great yearly festivals, each at the threshold of the new cycle: Samhain, (November 1st) opens the door into the dark half of the year, while Beltaine (May 1st) ushers in the cycle of summer. At Samhain, the rituals recognize themes of separation, darkness, decrease, cold, and death. At Beltaine we celebrate life's unity, increase, light, and growth.

Fires play an important part in all the major Celtic festivals for they are an earthly reflection of the Sun, once seen as the great Source of all life. When the Druids and their successors gathered the wood of nine sacred trees and raised the Beltaine fires on hilltops throughout the British Isles on May Eve, they were performing a real act of magic, for the fires were lit in order to bring the sun's light down to earth. When the wood burst into flames, it proclaimed the triumph of the light over the dark half of the year. In Scotland, every fire in the household was extinguished, a brief time of darkness followed, and then all the villagers climbed the hill to rekindle their flame from the new source with great rejoicing.

The maypole, that well-known symbol of summer's return, was popular in the more English-influenced parts of the British Isles, especially Wales and Cornwall. On May Eve in Wales, country-people of all ages headed for the woods singing songs of May-time and blowing loud horns. They felled a tall birch-tree and hauled it back to the village on a wagon drawn by oxen. At sunrise, the youngpeople decked their houses with the branches of May and the maypole was set up on the village green, bright with garlands of flowers and colored bows, rosettes and ribbons. In Ireland, many households created a May bush to be their "Tree of Life" during this seasonal tide. A bough, preferably of hawthorn, was decorated with flowers, ribbons, paper streamers and other bright scraps of material, and sometimes a golden ball was hung from the bush, to represent the sun. Candles or rush-lights were attached to it and it was lit with all due ceremony at dusk on Beltaine Eve.

In Wales and the Isle of Man, villages turned out for a mock battle between two teams dressed as summer and winter. Of course, Summer would win the day. The victorious captain chose a handsome young man to be the May King and the people picked a pretty May Queen, who were both led to their "court" in a green arbor and crowned with flowers. So every Beltaine does the Bride of the Earth wed her lover, the Green Man of the blossoming year. The offspring of their love will be the fruit of the year's harvest.

The lives of our Celtic ancestors were naturally attuned to these cycles as to the rhythm of a spiral dance. To celebrate the fruitful earth in a sacred manner was to constantly renew the ancient contract between human beings and the Divine. We, too, can feel this great turning of the Wheel of the Year in our own bodies, hearts, and minds, if we are willing to open up to the creative forces that flow through us, and learn to live in harmony and balance with each other and with the Earth. The wisdom of the Wheel of the Year can liberate us from our modern linear model of time, reminding us that death yields to life again and again.

At Beltaine, we naturally respond to the rising tide of the life force within our bodies and within the land. Even on a short walk in the countryside or neighbourhood park at this time of year, you cannot help but feel the "force that drives the green fuse through the flower," as Welsh poet Dylan Thomas called it. As all earth responds to the sun's invitation to grow and expand, the soul, too, responds to an inner calling to unfurl and express itself in the radiance of the spiritual Sun, the Higher Self. Whatever hopes, dreams and desires of your innermost self have been incubating during the dark of winter, now is the time to bring them out into the Beltaine light and let them grow to fruition.

As Nature proliferates in joyful fecundity, we are invited to get in touch with our own creativity and our own playfulness - to let ourselves twine, leaf, or blossom into expression, to add our own unique and inimitable flowering to the greening of all life.

We can celebrate connection by gathering with friends to make garlands or decorate an altar to the Earth using yellow flowers, the color traditionally associated with Beltaine in Ireland. We can create May baskets of flowers and little gifts of goodwill to give to those in need of care.

This festival is also a time to nurture our sensuality. Whether we have a sexual partner or not, we can honor our bodies and delight our senses by filling the house with fragrant flowers and branches and enjoying sensual food and drink such as syllabub and May wine. At night, we might draw a bath by candlelight and scent the water with essential oils.

A smaller version of the Irish May bough is also fun to make and can be part of a simple Beltaine ritual which you can do alone or with friends and family:


    Locate a tree associated with Beltaine: Choose from oak, hazel, mountain ash, hawthorn, willow, alder or elm. Make sure it is budding out or already in leaf and/or blossom.
    Ask permission of the tree to take one of its branches. If you feel this has been granted, go ahead; if not, choose another tree until permission is given. You will know by an inner sense that it is alright to proceed.
    When you have found the right one, be sure to thank the tree and give it an offering in return: This can be a libation of milk, ale or wine, a handful of grain, a small cake baked for the purpose, honey or jam.
    Cut a small budding branch with a number of twigs and take it home. Crush the bottom so that it will absorb water properly, and anchor it in water in a vase, using stones if necessary.
    Place it on your altar if you have one, or in the center of a table.
    Cut lengths of thin colored ribbons to tie on the branch or twigs. If you are doing this with children, lay out a selection of ribbons for them to choose.
    Hold the ribbon or tie it on your wrist for a while, thus marking it with your energy "signature." Sit or stand before your Flowering Tree, close your eyes, breathe deeply and allow your mind to become still.
    Focus on what you wish to have expand or increase in your life in the coming season of growth. Use all your inner senses: see, hear, feel, taste and touch what that would look like if it was happening right now.
    Voice your intention silently or out loud, and tie your ribbon on the branch or twig for the spirit of Beltaine to work upon.
    Thank the bough and let its spirit go to work on your behalf during the coming days.


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