In recent years, like many other people, I have found myself yearning to reconnect to the cycles of the seasons and Mother Earth. The Pagan Sabbats have become increasingly important to me. These eight festivals include the solstices and equinoxes and together form the Wheel of the Year. One such festival is Beltane (or Beltain). You might know it as May Day, most often held on the first day of May.

Beltane Fire Festival

Derived from the Gaelic word “Bealtaine,” which roughly translates as ‘bright fire’, this festival marks the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In ancient Celtic cultures, Beltane heralded the start of warmer weather, when crops were planted and livestock mated. Bonfires were lit to honour the sun’s warmth and light, and rituals were performed to ensure bountiful crops and blessings for the community.

Lighting the Beltane fires was a symbolic way to celebrate the end of the dark winter months and the coming of warmer summer days and longer hours of sunshine.

In Scotland, cattle were traditionally driven around Beltane fires and the community would dance and leap over the flames.

May Day Celebrations

With the spread of Christianity, many pagan festivals, including Beltane, were assimilated into Christian holidays. Beltane’s themes of fertility and renewal were intertwined with Christian narratives, resulting in the celebration of May Day. Despite the overlay of Christian symbolism, remnants of pagan customs and rituals persisted, underscoring the enduring connection to the land and its cycles.

May Day rituals often included dancing around a maypole, a large pole on the village green with colourful ribbons streaming down from the top. Girls holding these ribbons danced in a set pattern and, as the dance progressed, the ribbons were weaved around the pole.

Today, Beltane continues to be celebrated by pagans, most commonly on the 1st of May, although some use the exact midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice which is nearer the 5th of the month.

For others, Beltane is celebrated when the hawthorn trees start to blossom. You may be familiar with the saying “Ne’er cast a clout till may be out“. Clout is Old English for clothes. However, the reference to ‘may’ is not as many believe referring to the month of May. It is, in fact, a reference to the mayflower as the blossom of the hawthorn is known – a deeply magical tree to ancient Celts with the blossoming branches used in decoration for Beltane celebrations.

The Green Man (Jack-in-the-Green)

The May Queen and The Green Man (Jack-in-the-Green) featured in many May Day celebrations. The Green Man, with his face surrounded by oak leaves, harks back to a time when trees were held in great reverence.

Banning May Day Celebrations in England

May Day with its pagan roots, however, has been banned over the centuries here in England more than once. In the 16th century, such a ban was not well received by the people and some 400 rioters were sentenced to death. The vast majority were pardoned but 14 were hanged. Again in the 17th century, legislation was passed by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans banning village maypoles. However, with the return of Charles II, in 1661 a 40-metre-high maypole was erected in London and May Day festivities were reinstated.

Today, while most maypoles are temporary structures, some stand proud all year round. Barwick in Yorkshire has the largest permanent maypole in England at some 86 feet high. Other permanent maypoles can be found at Welford-on-Avon and Dunchurch, Warwickshire on the village greens.

 

Ways to celebrate Beltane

Whether you join a community celebration or opt for something more personal, there are many ways we can celebrate Beltane.

  • Create an altar adorned with flowers, including mayflowers, candles, and symbols of fertility and use this as a focal point for meditation and reflection.
  • Plant seeds or tend to your garden in recognition of the fertility of the land – a symbolic participation in the cycle of life.
  • Spend time in nature – another wonderful opportunity for some quiet meditation.
  • Share a meal with loved ones and embrace the spirit of Beltane by cultivating joy and connection.

Beltane Festivals in England

If you wish to join a community celebration, there are numerous festivals all over the UK and I’d suggest you search online for any near you.

One of my favourites is at Butser Farm in Hampshire, just a 40-minute drive from where I live. Here, the culmination of the celebrations is the burning of a spectacular 40-foot wicker figure. In 2023 it was a giant phoenix. Each year, the tickets sell out within minutes of going on sale and we missed out this year.

Festival goers at Butser Ancient Farm
Burning of the wicker figure at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire
Drumming and singing at Butser Ancient Farm
Above: Beltane celebrations at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire

This year, I’ll be joining the celebrations at Wild Heart Hill in West Sussex, where The Wellderness are hosting their Beltane Fire and Feast Festival. I’ve not been before but I’ve heard plenty of good things about it.

Jack-in-the-Green in Hastings in East Sussex is a popular 4-day festival running over the first weekend in May each year. The wildest day is on Monday (a bank holiday) when the festival ends with the main Jack in the Green Parade through Hastings Old Town and culminates with slaying of Jack to release the spirit of summer.

Beltane Sound Bath in the ancient village of Pagham, 1st May at 5 pm

While a sound bath might not be the first thing that springs to mind when considering how to celebrate Beltane it seems only natural to me that I should hold a Beltane Sound Bath on May 1st in my home village of Pagham – a unique opportunity to connect with the rhythms of nature and come together in community and celebration.

While we won’t be lighting any fires and dancing round the Maypole, I’ll be encouraging people to wear the colours of fire and nature and perhaps some flowers in their hair. The sound bath will be held in a circle to enhance the sense of community. And I’ll be giving out wildflower seeds to all who come. You’ll find further information and booking details here.

 

Beltane Sound Bath in Pagham, West Sussex

However, you chose to celebrate Beltane, may you have a blessed day and a bountiful summer.

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