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~ Preparing for Beltane ~
by Elizabeth Barrette
Beltane is a traditional Pagan sabbat celebrated by many people today. It spans the night of April 31 (May Eve) and the day of May 1 (May Day). Other names include Roodmas and Walpurgisnacht. The many themes associated with Beltane can give you ideas for planning a ritual or gathering. Good books include Beltane: Springtime Rituals, Lore and Celebration and Celebrating the Seasons of Life: Beltane to Mabon. For seasonal music, consider Beltane: Songs for the Green Time or From Imbolc to Beltane.
The Rites of Spring
Beltane marks the beginning of the “light half” of the year, when the days are long and bright and warm. This is the height of spring, bursting with flowers and the first new foods such as asparagus. As a seasonal celebration, Beltane is all about life busy with creation and full of exuberance.
Decorate the altar with seasonal flowers such as lilacs, hawthorn, and apple blossoms. Include images of animals associated with spring, such as robins and calves. Use spring colors such as green, yellow, sky blue, and lavender. Plan to hold your ritual outdoors if possible — but include a backup site indoors in case of rain.
Protection and Purification
Ancient Celtic tribes used to bring their cattle out of the winter barns at Beltane. Cattle were driven between two huge balefires for purification and protection, before they were released into the summer pastures. Other customs for purification involved birching and picking insecticidal herbs. This was also a popular time for spring cleaning.
To focus on this aspect of Beltane, host a work day for cleaning your covenstead or do some other collective project to clean and refresh your surroundings. Take a bath or sauna for purification. Build a pair of balefires (far enough apart for safety) and lead a line dance between them. Rue, tansy, pennyroyal, and other purifying herbs are appropriate.
As mentioned above, balefires formed a major part of historic Beltane celebrations. Other fires in the community would be extinguished and relit from the balefires. People also celebrated the growing power of the sun. Belenos the Shining One was honored at this time.
Today, Beltane is often celebrated as a fire festival with bonfires, marshmallow and weiner roasts, burning effigies, fire dancers, and other excitement. Design your ritual around a bonfire; appoint a Fire Keeper to manage the fire and a Water Bearer to supervise safety. For an indoor ceremony, use masses of yellow candles. Thistle, dragon’s blood, hawthorn, and fireweed all relate to fire.
Courtship and Romance
Beltane was a time when young, single people could meet, flirt, and discover potential mates. Games of physical prowess and mental acuity allowed people to show off in front of others. Gifts of sweets and flowers were popular favors. Women would rise early to wash their faces in May morning dew for beauty.
A large Pagan community might benefit from hosting a singles event for Beltane. What better opportunity to meet other Pagans who are open to new relationships? Include icebreaker games, high-action contests, low-action contests, a dance, and some quiet interludes. Performances of love songs, love poems, and scenes from romantic plays are popular. It may be prudent to provide a basket of condoms in case of need. Sweet (rose, jasmine, ylang ylang) or sexy (musk, patchouli) incenses or oils are ideal.
As a fertility festival, Beltane encourages the crops to grow and the animals and people to produce new life. The famous May Pole is a phallic symbol and the dancing raises power. Flowers and romantic foods add to the mood.
For someone wishing to conceive, Beltane is an ideal time to hold a real old-time fertility ritual as May Queen and May King. (It’s okay if the choice of partners is a foregone conclusion.) Erect a May Pole and dance around it. Sweet woodruff, strawberries, and white wine or mead are traditional for Maybowl ingredients. Celebrate your bodies and their power. Body painting, purifying baths, and making love outdoors are all popular. Ideally, at least part of the activities should be done skyclad.
The Sacred Marriage
As above, so below: people associate Beltane with love and sexuality because it’s considered the time when the God and the Goddess come together. The God may appear as Bel, Cernunnos, or Jack-in-the-Green. The Goddess may appear as Flora, Maia, or Danu. Sometimes their human representatives are chosen by lot, other times planned. People often dress up, including a masquerade and procession as part of the festivities.
This theme is especially appropriate for covens led by a High Priest and High Priestess who are married. Sometimes it is performed by a couple who are about to get married. They serve as human vessels for the God and the Goddess, in a symbolic (or in private, sometimes literal) performance of their divine union.
Spirits and Faeries
On certain nights, faeries and spirits roam the world. Beltane is one time famed for faery rades and the Wild Hunt. Ghosts and other spirits are also believed to travel freely on this night. Some practices were aimed at attracting these visitors, most at driving them away.
To celebrate the ethereal aspects of Beltane, consider creating a faery garden with plenty of things that sparkle and jingle, and plants beloved by faeries. The traditional faery color is green, but they adore most bright colors. Snapdragon, meadowsweet, hawthorn, and foxglove are good altar flowers.
To protect against unwanted entities, see the previous section on purification and protection; but also add that salt, iron, and the making of much noise are traditional for Beltane defenses. Plan for an indoor observance in this case.
~ Solitary Activities for Beltane ~
Beltane is a holiday celebrating life, fertility, and abundance. I remember one year that at about this time, while I was at school, there was a family of ducks living near the dorms. I would go duck-spotting by bringing my books out there to study, and I wouldn't leave until I saw them and their ducklings waddling by. It was a very relaxing way to prepare for exams, and in the meantime, it was a great way to connect with the world around me.
Have a meal of nothing but fruits and vegetables, too. They're very cooling and feel like you're taking a bit of summer into you.
Like the group activities, make May Baskets for people who are special to you and leave them on the doors of those people. You can put flowers (paper or real), candy, small trinkets, or anything else that you can imagine into them. It's a nice way of saying farewell to people you may not see until next school year. The baskets don't have to be anything special...just get some colored construction paper, roll it into a cone and secure with glue, tape, or staples, and then take another strip of construction paper to staple to the top edges as a handle.
If it's getting warm, spend time outside again before it gets too hot. Breathe in the air, ground and center yourself, and calm your thoughts before returning to your studies or chores. Your activities & progress will be enhanced with a clear head!
If you are really pressed for time, don't worry about holding a formal ritual. Use those times outside as your "ritual"...daily communion with the world around you is far better than only focusing on your beliefs one *good* time every six weeks, anyway.
Enjoy your time while you can, and don't forget to reflect on the past year so you can think of how things can be done better in the future. You may even find a group next year, so don't sweat the small stuff now! You survived it on your own already!