Beltane, the Gaelic festival that marks the beginning of summer, is a celebration of life, light, and abundance. Beltane is also known as May Day. May Day brings forth images of flowers, bonfires,  the May King and Queen,  Maypoles, bonfires, and celebrating. Beltane, like Samhain, is observed by the Irish ,Scottish, Celtic neo pagans and Wiccans. These two festivals are often regarded as the most important of the Celtic festivals.  If you remember, Samhain marks the beginning of winter.  Beltane, falling in the middle of the spring equinox and summer solstice, marks the beginning of summer. Yup, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, summer has arrived!

Beltane, like many pagan festivals, is a time to celebrate and prepare for the coming season. This is done with general feasting and merriment. Beltane’s celebrates the bounty spring has provided for us. Purification, protection, and of course, fertility are important themes in Beltane. Beltane is the feast of fires, fertility, and flowers afterall. 

Beltane Festival of Fire

Fire is very important in Beltane festivals. One iconic symbol of Beltane is the bonfire. Massive bonfires were blessed by the priests and were burned for protection and cleansing, ideally to promote fertility. With the Earth's fertility ramping up, early summer is an important time to protect the upcoming bounty of your family, your crops, and most importantly, your cattle. 

Historically the Celts were a pastoral clan. Back in the olden times, cattle were herded out to pasture during Beltane. The cattle were driven between two blessed, burning bonfires to protect them from pets such as evil spirits and diseases. While driving the cattle, some revelers would jump over the fires for good fortune, cleansing, and a little help in the fertility department. Couples would even jump over together to symbolize their union and commitment to each other. More on this later. 

Bonfires continued to be an important part of this festival late into the 18th and 19th centuries. One tradition that kept the use of bonfires alive was the household cleansing. Each household would put out their own hearth fire. At the end of the festivities the people would all relight their hearth fires from the sacred communal bonfire. This practice is continued to this day in parts of Ireland and Scotland.

Origins of the word Beltane are up for debate. Some say it comes from the Celtic *belo-tanos "bright fire. Others say it breaks down into the “fires of Bel”. One thing is for sure. The name derives from the work fire.

Beltane: Festival of Fertility

Life and abundance are what Beltane is all about. At its core, Beltane is a festival of fertility.  Naturally this brings relationships and unions to center stage. The mythological reference for Beltane is this is the union of the May Queen and the King of the Forest, the union of the sky and the Earth. Traditional Beltane festivities underline the union theme. The most recognizable tradition is dancing around the Maypole. 

The maypole is a staff, traditionally made of birch, that is erected and decorated with ribbons and  flowers, traditionally hawthorn. Women would form a ring around the pole, and men would encircle them. Everyone would grab the end of a ribbon and begin to dance. The men would circle one way, the ladies would circle the other way, weaving a rainbow sheath around the pole. Yes, this is highly symbolic of sex and fertility.  



Couples that were ready for a more formal union would take part in the handfasting ceremony. Handfasting is like a wedding. A couple comes together and declares their union by exchanging vows and often rings. During a handfasting a couples hands were tied together with a red cord. This is where we get the term “tying the knot”. Their hands are bound together at the beginning of the ceremony to symbolize their union, and then untied at the end. This indicates that they are staying together of their own free will. Pagan weddings and handfastings are common occurrences during Beltane. 

 Many couples, in varying stages of commitment, would go a-maying. One can think of this as a grandfather of parking, that happened in May, and normally occurred in the woods.  Some define a-maying as a general celebration of May Day. Ya know, coupling up and gathering flowers in the woods to bring home for decorations. Couples young and old would pair off to find their “decorations” for this fertility festival. While whatever happened in the woods stayed in the woods, they would bring back flowers, greenery, and boughs to decorate their homes and selves for May Day.


Beltane Festival of Flowers

Beltane is the celebration of the return to life. What better way to celebrate the bounty of nature and abundance than with buckets of flowers? We went through the dark winter, sowed our seeds in the spring, and now it’s the time to honor and celebrate nature's abundance. Flowers were used to decorate people, their houses, the Maypole, and anything else you could put a flower on. Plants associated with Beltane include trees such as hawthorn, birch, rowan, and flowers such as primrose. Each of these plants is very special in its own rite. 


Hawthorn is a tree held in high regard in Celtic lore. Symbolizing love and protection, the Hawthorn tree is one of the most important plants in Celtic mythology. It was common for brides, even outside of Beltane, to wear hawthorn flowers in their hair as a symbol of love and union. One must be careful though. Hawthorns are rife with faeries. When collecting twigs or blooms, one must ask, and collect in the spirit of honor and respect. No one needs pissed off pixes following them around. Fun fact, Hawthorn is one of the birth flowers for those of us born in May. 


Birch is one of the first trees to get it’s leaves going again in the spring. As such an earl bloomer it has become a symbol of fertility. One would think of the birch tree as imposing a masculine feel, as it is traditionally used to make the Maypole. The birch, however, is a lady. She is a symbol of new beginning, rebirth, and growth. Branches of birch are common home decorations during Beltane. 


Rowan trees are sacred throughout multiple cultures. The Greeks, Scandinavians, and Nore all had legends surrounding this beauty. The Rowan tree is even known as the Tree of Life in Celtic mythology. It is a symbol of protection, courage, and wisdom. Not only is the Rowan tree sacred, its white flowers are wonderful for our pollinators.


The beautiful little primrose is another of the early risers. This little perineal gives us the gift of her pale yellow blooms early in the spring. These blooms too represent love, although usually of the young and obsessive nature.



Beltane, the festival of fires, fertility, and flowers is the celebration of light, life, and love. Get out and enjoy the day! Appreciate the resilience and bounty nature has to offer. Today the largest Beltane festival is held in Edinburgh, Scotland. Cheers to those celebrating this festival around the world.