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  • Writer's pictureHannah McQuilkan

Beltaine - The festival of spring

Updated: Dec 17, 2022

For those of us in the Southern Hemisphere, the blossoms are blooming, the days are longer and warmer. Spring is arriving in all her glory! November the 8th is the exact half point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and the Celts celebrated this day or the day nearest the full moon as Beltaine.

On most New Zealanders calendars however is not a spring celebration but Halloween. This marks the Northern Hemispheres time of Samhain to the Celtic peoples, a time of darker days, heading into winter and a time of remembering our ancestors whose bones lie deep in the earth. Halloween is now just a hollow shell of original Samhain festivities of course and in NZ it is mostly just a fun day for children. I suppose theres no real harm in a bit of trick or treat but I can't help but feel a kind of sadness that we have moved so far away from what the natural world is doing that our festivals are not even remotely in sync with the world around us. I long to return to a time when our celebrations are also linked into the earth and her cycles, that when the flowers start to bloom and the lambs are running around that we are celebrating new life not the dead.

As I seek to explore and incorporate the ways of my ancient ancestors I aim to adopt their way of thinking and being as far as that is possible and express this in the environment I find myself in. We can't hope to recreate a Celtic way of life now but we can use their ways as inspiration to create a new way of earth loving and worship for our modern world.

Sometimes I like to imagine what would have happened if our ancient Celtic ancestors had found themselves on the other side of the world......would they have even known that the seasons in their time zone was completely opposite? In any case, it is certain that they would have adapted to the cycles of the land here, developed new celebrations perhaps, influenced by their homeland. I imagine they would have discovered ways to commune and honour THIS land rather than trying to copy a system designed for a very different place. If there had been other peoples living here I imagine their worship may have been influenced by that so I have explored how the ancient Maori would have seen this time of the year as well.

Beltaine was the return of the sun and all that went with that - spring, new life and fertility. It was a high energy time of merry making, sexual energy and ensuring prosperity for the coming year. The second part of the word 'Beltaine' clearly means fire from the Celtic 'tene'. Linguists are uncertain as to whether Bel refer to the Gaulish God Belenos or is simply derived from 'bel' meaning brilliant. Belenos was a sun god who may have been connected with this time and his name means bright or brilliant. Shrines and sanctuaries have been found dedicated to him.

Fire has always been a key component to Beltaine celebrations. Druids would have assembled high on hill tops with a view of the rising sun. The great fires would have been to invoke the power of the sun and bring it to earth to sanctify the land, community and livestock. Fire was considered an interface between the human and divine worlds. Beltaine, like Samhain were considered the times during the year where the veil between the physical world and otherworld were thinnest and one might encounter fairy beings, it was thought wise to protect oneself against fairy magic at this time!

Many centuries later, after the Druids had all but gone, fires continued to blaze on hill tops in Scotland and Ireland, household fires were put out and a great fire as lit on a hillside. Then people would have walked to the fire with their livestock, offering milk and custard to the earth. The livestock was walked around the fire as fire was deemed to have protective powers. The whole hillside would have come alive with dancers, young men would have leapt over the fire to 'sain' or protect themselves and their livestock and a man about to get married or go on a long journey would have leapt over the fire 3 times for luck! Girls would have jumped over it to find their ideal husband while pregnant women stepped through it to ensure an easy birth. Once the fire had died down the embers were then thrown among the sprouting crops for good luck and used to relight the fires inside each home.

The May bush or branch was a popular expression well into the 19th Century. A tree was decorated with clootie cloths, shells and other ornaments (see image above). A family would have their own bush or tree and often a living tree was decorated by the whole village. There was much competition to create the most beautiful tree. On Beltaine eve boys and girls wearing garlands and flowers would dance and weave around the tree in much the same way that their Iron Age ancestors had danced around the Tree of Life at the centre of their settlements. It is thought that this custom is a relic of tree worship rites and would bestow the home with blessings from the tree spirit.

Steps were taken at this time to appease the fairy being by leaving offerings such as milk outside the house or under trees known for their fairy magic.

In the Maori tradition we have just come through spring, signalled by the beautiful flowering trees such as Kowhai, Rangiora and Puriri. Kumara has now been planted and the God Rongo, the god of cultivated food and the male personification of the moon was associated with this time. November, was Whiringanuku, the fifth month, when 'ka whakaniho nga mea katoa o te whenua i konei' (‘all things now put forth fresh growth’).  A good flowering of ti koukan (cabbage tree) is said to be a sign that a long, fine summer will follow.

There are so many simple ways to celebrate Beltaine today:

Collect dew on the morning of Beltaine

Dew from this time was considered to be a potent beautifier and women would wash in the first dew of the morning. It would have also been collected in jars and used at a later stage. The feeling of morning dew is indeed a wonderful thing, how about getting up early and trying this age old beauty treatment?

Decorate a May Tree

Finding a beloved tree to honour with ribbons and decorations is a joyful activity for young and old. Perhaps choose a flowering native tree to adorn such as the majestic Kowhai tree.

Offering to a fairy

Leave an offering to the fairy beings on your doorstep or in your garden on Beltaine eve!

Fire Meditation

Light a candle or build a fire if you can an sit with it, meditating on the return of summer and the gift of the sun in your own life and across the planet.

Honour your sensuality

Whether you are single or have a partner, this is the time of year to celebrate your sensuality. Read love poems, have a warm rose petal bath, get a massage or share one with your beloved.

May this Beltaine bring you much joy and prosperity for the year to come!

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