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Beltane: A Celtic Celebration of Summer, Fairies, and Fiery Festivities

Let's dive into the magical world of Beltane (La Bealtaine), or May Day, as some of you might know it. This Celtic festival is all about celebrating the arrival of summer and bidding farewell to the colder, darker days of winter. It's celebrated on April 30th and May 1st, and it's a time for people to come together, have fun, and participate in rituals that are linked to fertility and growth.

Beltane wasn't just a thing in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man; it was celebrated in many parts of Europe, each with their own unique twist on the festivities. The Celts had their own calendar, and Beltane was smack-dab in the middle of the Spring Equinox (when day and night were equally long) and the Summer Solstice (the longest day of the year – perfect for those who love basking in the sun).

So, why was Beltane such a big deal? Well, it was all about making sure the crops would grow strong and healthy over the summer months and protecting the Celts' most precious possession – their cattle. Because let's be real, nobody wants to deal with a failed harvest or sickly cows, right?

Where Flames Dance and Summer Comes Alive

The main event of Beltane – the bonfire extravaganza! The Celts really knew how to party, and they showed it by building not one, but two massive bonfires.

People would gather their cattle and walk them right through the middle of these blazing beacons, making sure the smoke completely engulfed them. It might sound a bit strange, but they believed the smoke had powerful magic that could protect them and their animals from all sorts of natural and supernatural threats.

In some places, the Celts took their cattle to fairy mounds and actually bled them as an offering. The herdsmen would then taste the blood (a unique culinary experience) and pour it into the ground, where it was then burnt. The Celts were pretty hardcore when it came to their rituals.

It's a fascinating glimpse into the beliefs and practices of the Celtic people, and it shows just how important their cattle and the natural world were to them. While we might not be building massive bonfires or tasting cattle blood anytime soon, we can still appreciate the spirit of Beltane and the connection it fostered between people, animals, and the environment.

Beltane bonfire Image copyright Ireland Calling

Keeping the Mischievous Fairies in Check

Beltane is variously spelt Beltain, Bealtainne, Beltaine, Bealtaine, Beltany

The Sí (fairies) – those mischievous little creatures that kept the Celts on their toes! Around Beltane and Samhain, the fairies were believed to be particularly active, and the last thing anyone wanted was to get on their bad side. So, the crafty Celts came up with all sorts of rituals to keep the fairies happy and to make sure their pranks didn't cause any harm to the people or their animals.

One way they protected their homes was by putting out all the hearth fires and relighting them with embers from the Beltane fires, it kept the fairies at bay. They also decorated their doors, windows, and barns with bright yellow May flowers, which might have been symbols of the fire – or maybe the Celts just really liked the colour yellow?

When the Beltane fires died down, the ash was scattered over crops for an extra layer of fairy-repelling protection. In some parts of Ireland, people would decorate thorn bushes (which were apparently like fairy magnets) with flowers, ribbons, and coloured shells to create a May bush. This tradition continued well into the 19th century, along with the bonfires and the practice of walking cattle through them. However, by the 20th century, Beltane as a festival had largely fizzled out.

Fast forward to modern times, and Beltane is making a comeback! Various communities, neo-pagan groups, and individuals interested in reviving ancient Celtic traditions are celebrating the festival once again. People gather to perform rituals, dance around the Maypole (which sounds like a lot more fun than walking through a bonfire), and celebrate the season's fertility and the beauty of nature.

Beltane is a celebration that has stood the test of time, showcasing the resilience of Celtic culture and their deep appreciation for the natural world. It's a reminder that we can still find joy and meaning in the changing seasons and the power of community, even in our modern, fast-paced lives. So, why not take a page from the Celts' book and celebrate the arrival of summer with your own Beltane-inspired gathering? Just remember to leave the actual cow-protecting to the professionals!

Ways to celebrate Beltane

Beltane isn’t just a festival! It refers to the entire month of May and is a wonderful time to celebrate the arrival of summer and connect with the rich cultural heritage of Ireland. Whether you're celebrating with family or enjoying some solo time, there are plenty of activities you can do to embrace the spirit of Beltane. Here are some eco-friendly ideas to get you started:

1. Go on a Nature Walk:

Take a leisurely walk in the countryside or a nearby park. Encourage your family to observe the signs of summer, such as blooming flowers, chirping birds, and buzzing bees. Collect wildflowers, leaves, or other natural treasures to bring home.

2. Create a May Celebration Table:

Gather flowers, herbs, and other natural objects to create a beautiful May Celebration Table in your home. This can be a small space dedicated to the season, where you can display your collected items, light candles, and reflect on the beauty of nature. Involve your family in collecting items and decorating the table together.

3. Plant a Garden:

Beltane is a time of growth and fertility, making it the perfect time to start a garden. Plant seeds or seedlings of your favourite herbs, vegetables, or flowers. Involve your family in the process, assigning each member a specific task or plant to care for. If you don't have a garden space, consider starting a container garden on your balcony, patio, or even indoors. Herbs and small vegetables can thrive in pots and containers.

4. Create a Solar Lantern:

Instead of a bonfire, create a solar lantern to symbolize the light and warmth of the summer sun. Decorate glass jars with paint, ribbons, or pressed flowers, and place solar-powered LED lights inside. Arrange your lanterns in your garden or on your windowsill to create a beautiful, eco-friendly display.

5. Explore Irish Folklore:

Read stories from Irish folklore related to Beltane and the coming of summer. Share these stories with your family or reflect on them during solo time. Many of these tales celebrate the beauty of nature and the changing of the seasons.

By incorporating these eco-friendly activities into your Beltane celebrations, you can honour the natural world and the changing of the seasons while being kind to the environment. Enjoy the beauty and magic of this special time of year. Happy Beltane!

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Celtic Festivals prints from Bealtaine Fire

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