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Seasonal celebrations, big and small 🌱
This Monday, 1st May, is Beltane, as we reach the mid-point between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere. The symbolic casting off of darkness and letting in of the light at the start of May finds its origins in this ancient 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 many other ancient festivals, not least in what we now call the Wheel of the Year, nature was the guiding force. In the past, the farming calendar and its rituals took precedence, so at this time livestock would have been put out to pasture to graze. Today, we can look to the traditions of the past and mark them in our own, modern ways; a chance to pause and take stock, to notice nature around us and to celebrate the turn of the seasons.
Many of the festivals in the Celtic Wheel celebrate light and fire, particularly Beltane, which has been marked in different ways 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. And of course there are other traditions that celebrate the start of May - this time of year is just magical. Here are some things I’ll be making and doing to celebrate Beltane.
Lighting Candles and Seasonal Reflections
At each of the seasonal celebrations in the Celtic Wheel, I like to light the candles, take stock and reflect. Fire is regarded as a purifying, healing element and the ritual lighting of the Beltane bonfire would have been an important part of this day, representing the growing power of the sun and regeneration following the period of darkness spent indoors. In the past, families would walk around and even jump over the fire, and animals were purified and protected by being led around and 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. These days, I’ll be lighting the stove and some beeswax candles as a symbolic nod to the day. As I do so, I’ll take time to reflect on the things I’m grateful for and to make gentle plans for the next six weeks of the year, a time of growth and abundance.
Heading to the Hills
Historically, Beltane was also a time associated with courting and match-making, while many marriages and ‘handfasting’ ceremonies took place, as well as rituals celebrating creative community and abundance. The community ritual of marking Beltane sadly died out in Victorian times but since the late 1980s the Beltane Fire Festival by the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh has resurrected many of the ancient traditions, attracting hundreds of visitors to Calton Hill every year. I love the spirit of these celebrations but I’m also a massive introvert, so will likely head to the hills and celebrate in nature in a quieter way. Arthur’s Seat calls my name at this time of year as this was the site of traditional Beltane celebrations as beacons were lit. I’ll be stopping to smell the gorse and will take a flask of tea and maybe something sweet to toast the day. Something about seeing things from a vantage point, surrounded by nature, puts everything into vital perspective for me.
Celebrating with Flowers
Beltane for me means the beginning of abundance in the natural world. The arrival of so many beautiful late Spring and early Summer blooms fills me with such happiness. Last weekend we went to the home of Ochre Botanical Studios in Granton Castle Walled Garden to see the flower farm in all its Spring glory. They were hosting a Spring posy workshop and we had such fun mindfully selecting the ruffliest coral-centred narcissi and powder pink tulips to fill our jam jars, and arranging their stems criss-crossed along with some silver birch catkins. I hope you can get your hands on some flowers this week to celebrate Beltane and maybe even make a posy to pop on neighbours’ or friends’ doors. I saw that the season has begun for Aspen Florals who sell their Pentland-grown flowers locally to me too. If you’re further afield, please do pop your favourite places to buy seasonal, locally grown flowers in the comments below.
Sowing for Summer
Spring has felt later this year, and there’s still a distinctive chill in the air here in Edinburgh. However, planning my Summer gardening projects has been bringing me great joy. Sowing your Summer blooms or planting out seedlings is a wonderful mindful activity at this time of year. Getting my hands in the earth is always grounding to me, while the anticipation of Summer flowers and the patience nature teaches us is such a vital reminder. Instagram seems filled with grand cottage gardens, while our communal tenement plot with its overgrown weeds and neighbours’ dog poo is far from Instagrammable - however, I’m not letting that deter me and I’ve got ambitious plans. I want to show (myself as much as anyone else) that you can have your cottage cutting patch of dreams in the city. So far, I’m building a collection of pots and am making planters in our small shared garden, as well as sowing pea shoots and herbs indoors. In fact, I sowed the peas just two weeks ago and have already got generous shoots appearing that I can cut for salad and they will come again. I’ve found investing in the best seeds you can afford makes a difference, and following the instructions on the packet to the letter - particularly for light and watering. While I sow and tend my plants I’m also sowing the seeds of other ideas for Summer, gently planning some projects at home and further afield to look forward to.
I often associate preserving with the Summer and Autumn, something to harvest and hold the seasons’ gluts and see us through the Winter. But there is so much Spring goodness that I’d like to bottle and save for another day as well! Do you have any recipes that you’d recommend? I’ve been making cherry blossom syrup as part of some exciting recipe testing, which has captured the essence of the ephemeral flowers. They taste subtly floral and almost almondy. I’m also harvesting the last magnolia; the flowers can be dried and used as seasoning. The flavour is spicy, gingery and aromatic - almost like cardamom. In crafting terms, I love pressing flowers at this time of year to preserve their fleeting beauty: delicate forget-me-not and bluebell have such vivid shades that fade beautifully, and easily recognisable shapes that become even more graphic after pressing.
How are you celebrating Beltane? My free newsletter goes out on the last Sunday of every month, so I’ll see you again at the end of May!
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