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Beltane Traditions for Today
The symbolic casting off of darkness and letting in of the light at the start of May finds its origins in the ancient ritual of Beltane – a festival that has been celebrated for thousands of years. As far back as the Iron Age, Celts came together to celebrate Summer’s return. As with the other festivals in the Wheel of the Year, they marked the farming calendar and its rituals, and at this time livestock would have been put out to pasture to graze, the countryside being sufficiently warm and verdant.
Many of the festivals in the Celtic Wheel celebrate light and fire, and no more so than Beltane. The word ‘Beltane’ translates as ‘bright fire’ and has historically been celebrated in different forms in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man as a celebration of light, growth and goodness to come. Gathering greenery to display and the baking of Beltane “bannocks” were two of the main traditions here.
Fire is seen as a purifying, healing element and the ritual lighting of the Beltane bonfire would be an important part of this day. The light represents the growing power of the sun and regeneration following the period of darkness spent indoors. Families would walk around the fire, and brave individuals would even jump over it for good luck. Animals would similarly be purified and protected by being led around – and even over – the fire before heading to the fields. Another ancient Beltane ritual was the extinguishing of the hearth fire. A new, communal fire would be lit and used to relight each of the hearths, symbolising sacred community connection.
Historically, this was also a time associated with courting and match-making, while many marriages and ‘handfasting’ ceremonies took place. This is the festival most strongly associated with fertility, but not just in terms of our biology, but the nurturing of creative community and abundance. The tradition died out in Victorian times but in recent years, since the late 1980s, the practice has gone from strength to strength, resurrected by the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. The official Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh attracts hundreds of visitors to Calton Hill every year and has evolved with the variety of people it attracts, taking the spirit of the festival and forging connections with nature for the modern day.
In the past, Beltane celebrations would take place on Arthur’s Seat where beacons were lit for centuries, but now the torchlit procession starts more centrally at the National Monument (largely responsible for Edinburgh’s nickname, the “Athens of the North”) and goes clockwise around the hill to the beat of drums. The procession is led by the traditional “May Queen” and there is a performance of the death and rebirth of the “Green Man” who both light the huge bonfire. Participants congregate in the Bower for music, dancing, drink and food. The impressive display is an entirely volunteer-run community charity but is now a world-renowned event.
These days, I like to organise my own, small Beltane celebration, lighting a fire in the stove or making the most of being out in nature. Today we headed up Arthur’s Seat (the forecast is terrible for tomorrow) just to be outside; it was the tonic I needed - to breathe in the scent of the gorse, hear the call of the pheasants, watch the cherry blossom swaying in the wind and seeing the swans on Dunsapie Loch.
Fire, flowers and the outdoors are the only essential ingredients for a Beltane celebration. The rest is up to you! I recommend several flasks of a warming drink to accompany a simple picnic of bread, cheese and cold cuts, atop a blanket or two among the bluebells or under blossom. You could even string up bunting or other decorations like my tissue paper pom-poms. Layers might still be essential at this time of year - ne’er cast a clout ‘til May be oot, as they say - but don’t displace your Scottish sense of optimism either! Something about that contrast between light and dark, cold wind and warm sun is particularly powerful at this time of year. The wheel keeps on turning.