Beltane: Six ways to celebrate during lockdown
As the sun sets on 30 April, bonfires across the country are set aflame to mark the beginning of summer.
The Gaelic festival of Beltane is usually celebrated through gathering around a bonfire to rejoice in days lengthening, as the sabbat falls midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. To the ancient Celts, the changing pattern of the seasons was a matter of life and death, and marking these changes were key moments in the life of the community. As one of the four quarter-day Celtic festivals, Beltane was one such marker celebrated in various forms across Ireland, Scotland and Man as the starting point of summer. Bringing communities together to commemorate the height of spring, the observance of this sabbat was characterised by a celebration of fertility. One tradition symbolising this you may be familiar with - maypole dancers, where young women would dance around a maypole in order to find her a suitor.
The word Beltane, Là Bealltainn in Scots Gaelic, roughly translates as bright fire - thus the lighting of the Beltane bonfire is the most significant tradition kept alive to this day, although modern times have adjusted it's purpose. Fire was seen as a purifier and would have been walked around, danced, and even jumped over by the members of the community. This was also a time in the agricultural calendar when livestock would have been put out to pasture. Farmers would drive their cattle between bonfires to cleanse and protect them before being put out into the fields.
The Beltane that the Romans documented when they invaded Britain bears little resemblance to that practiced in rural Scotland in the 18th century, where the Church often re-imagined pagan beliefs. Regardless of authenticity, it is important to resurrect traditions and modify to modern times to commemorate an integral part of Scotland's rich history.
Today, you can watch the sunrise over Callanish standing stones, wash your face in the morning dew, or visit a healing well. If you are local to Edinburgh, you may already be well acquainted with the festival through the Beltane Fire Society – a performance held every year, drawing masses to Calton Hill. Due to the pandemic of COVID-19, the ways in which we celebrate Beltane in 2020 have to be adjusted slightly - so I’ve curated a list of ways you can still take part in the festivities without having to sacrifice your health.
1. Light the hearth fire In ancient communities, all hearth fires would have been extinguished and a new neid fire lit, which would have then been used to relight people’s hearths in their own homes. In this way, the community remained connected to each other by the sacred fire that was central to all. As it’s not possible to gather around a fire when it’s vital to abide by social distancing, fireplaces or candles will suffice. I recommend soy candles in warm scents and tones, such as red and gold, to bring a little warmth into your home.
2. Breathe in the fresh air As the festival falls on the midway point between Spring and Summer, it is believed that the veil between earth and the faerie world grows thin – similar to the sabbat’s equivalent Samhain (Halloween). Plenty of faerie lore links Beltane to the mischievous fae. If you have children, or even if you’re young at heart, search out ‘signs’ of the mystical beings such as acorn caps and faerie rings.
It is important, if possible, to go for a daily walk and breathe in the fresh air. Feel the sun’s warmth on your skin and reconnect with nature and the Green Man. Make note of all the types of spring flowers you come across and reflect on the beauty that each year, the earth returns with new life.
An old Beltane tradition was to roll in May Eve dew or wash your face in pre-dawn May Day dew for health, luck, beauty. As the saying goes – getting the head and hair wet in Beltane rain will bless the head.
Another tradition is to visit healing waters such as springs, ponds, and wells to bless them with flowers, garlands, ribbons, other offerings. If you are local to the Stockbridge/Dean Village area in Edinburgh, St Bernards Well (pictured) is a perfect place to visit as it was once believed to hold a sacred well that had healing powers.
3. Respect Mother Nature
As the sabbat celebrates the abundance of new life Mother Nature provides each Spring, we should be considerate with our impact on the Earth.
Be mindful with your packaging when ordering from takeaways or when shopping online – most takeaways provide eco-friendly packaging, but it is worth opting out of any cutlery and napkins in your order. Similarly, on Amazon you can sign up for their Frustration-Free Packaging service to avoid any unnecessary packaging.
If you have a garden, create a safe environment for wildlife, head to RSPCA for advice on attracting wildlife, such as making your own bird feeders or planting flowers that attract bees and butterflies. Another way to reduce waste is to up scraps and leftovers to create your own compost at home.
As we have less access to shops, it’s also worth trying your hand at making your own cleaning and beauty products using essential oils and ingredients you’ll find around the home. Follow Trash is for Tossers for handy tutorials and advice on going zero-waste.
4. Bake Beltuinn Bannock In the Hebrides, locals would bake Beltane cakes or bannocks (pictured) made of the grain of the sacred last sheaf from the previous harvest.
Instead of their usual round shape, these bannocks were often made flat with a hole in the centre. To ensure a good supply of milk for the coming year the cow would be milked through the hole in the bannock. The yellow marsh marigolds that bloom around this time give the day its original Gaelic name Latha Buidhe Bealltainn – the yellow day of Beltane. These would be used as decoration and tied to the tails of the cattle and horses to bring good fortune for the coming season.
The Beltane Cake was another key ritual of the celebration and some accounts detail how it was presented at the end of the feast by the master of the gathering. Known as the Beltuinn Bannock, Bonnach Bealltainn or am bonnach brea-tine, modern recipes of the cake include spices such as cinnamon and cardamom. The cake was divided into a number of pieces, and distributed in great form to the company. Some accounts detail how the pieces were put in a bonnet with blindfolded men then picking out their piece. One of the pieces would be daubed with charcoal – the cailleach beal-tine- and the unlucky holder was doomed to be sacrificed to Belenus, a sun god from Celtic mythology.
The large cake was baked with eggs (vegans can substitute with chia seeds or banana) and scalloped round the edge. Get the recipe at Caileach’s Herbarium.
5. Dust away the cobwebs It’s a cliché but our homes can really benefit from a good spring clean. During this time, we are spending a significant amount more in our homes and allergies can flare up with dust lying around from the previous season.
Buddhist monks begin their day by cleaning every corner of their living space in order to ‘clear the cobwebs from the mind’. Not only is cleaning an unusual form of mindfulness, it is also a great way to get the body moving. Your mental health can also benefit from refreshing your surroundings. To commemorate the height of Spring, bring fresh flowers and more greenery into home. Bring new life to your houseplants by re-potting and feeding them fertiliser, taking time to reconnect with nature.
6. Celebrate virtually In place of this year’s cancelled Beltane Fire Festival (pictured) due to COVID-19, stream the Beltane Online Fire Festival (BOnFire) at home. The BFS is a charity that organises the spring Beltane Fire Festival and autumn Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh every year. This year’s Beltane Fire Festival, which has an estimated audience of 8,000, was cancelled on 17 March due to the pandemic – only the second time the festival has been cancelled in 32 years. The pandemic has also caused May Day celebrations in the UK to be rescheduled to the following Friday 8 May 2020 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe Day). However, a number of organisations are holding virtual May Day celebrations over the first weekend in May (Friday 1 to Sunday 3 May 2020). Aberdeen will be holding Virtual May Day, for instance, which will bring together more than 15 local businesses to provide 12 hours of live music, cocktail tutorials and food and drink deliveries.
As with all Celtic festivals, the day would often end with a massive feast. Connect with others over video call by making your own potluck and eating dinner at the same time. Beltane also falls during Ramadan, a time of reflection where fasting helps Muslims with their spiritual devotion as well as in developing a feeling of kinship with other Muslims feasting at sunset.
Feasting has always been a key tradition in many religions as a way to connect with your spirituality as well as the community by showing gratitude and sharing with others. Reach out to those around you, offering any excess food or to pick up shopping for those that are self-isolating, ensuring everyone has plenty.