Beltane: What It is and 3 Ways to Celebrate It

Author: Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

Like me, you may have grown up celebrating May Day, a derivative of the Celtic pagan holiday Beltane.

I wasn’t raised to be the practicing witch I am today. But when I first delved into the occult at the age of 9, neither of my parents tried to stop me. If anything, my mother supported my interest by helping me gather the books and supplies I needed — for both my studies, and for the spells I was casting.

I was raised by an atheist father and an agnostic mother. We still practiced traditional Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter, but with an emphasis on the magic and storytelling behind Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. And there was always an appreciation for the seasonal rotation that these sacred days and mythical characters represented.

I was 4 or 5 years old when my mom first introduced me to the May Day ritual of making nosegays to pass out to all the neighbors. This May Day tradition celebrated the flowers that the April showers had promised.

Every year, on May 1st, my mother and I would first gather the flowers, picking them from the exquisite gardens that she and my father grew together. We also foraged for rogue daffodils in the alleyways of our sleepy neighborhood.

 

An example of the type of May Day nosegays I made with my mother

We also hunted for plum trees — whose blossomed branches we would cut — before we ventured further up into the foothills to gather wildflowers before the dramatic backdrop of the Rocky Mountains that towered behind my childhood home like a gigantic wall.

A lot of tulips, pasque (anemone family), and lilacs were involved in making the nosegays. We worked in dandelions and grape hyacinth, too. My mother taught me what plants were edible, and always made certain we never took too much.

Back home, we arranged the flowers into nosegays — small bouquets that we tied together using pretty ribbon. We then tucked them into cones made from construction paper, with construction paper handles that we used to hang the floral bundles from the doorknobs of our neighbors’ homes.

While my mother has died, I’ve continue the tradition of celebrating May Day — or Beltane — with my own daughters.

Me with my youngest daughter Story as a baby, and my mother, Enid Schantz, in Enid’s vegetable garden, circa 2001

What is Beltane?

May Day is derived from the celebration of Beltane (sometimes spelled Beltaine), the Celtic name of which means “the fires of Bel.” This holiday falls on May 1st every year.

Beltane follows the Spring Equinox, and acts as the second and last of the two spring sabbats. It falls directly opposite the holiday of Samhain (which has been appropriated in dominant culture as Halloween), which follows the Autumn Equinox Mabon.

Beltane is a fire festival that celebrates the coming of summer and the fertility to follow. While Ostara, the Spring Equinox, is a holiday of rebirth (hence the hunt for eggs during the Christian Easter holiday), Beltane is all about fertility — a celebration of both sex and sexuality.

 

Me & my coven on Beltane in 2007 (I’m to the right of the Maypole in a pink dress with black cardigan)

Believe it or not, the Maypole that so many of us danced around as children is meant as a phallic symbol, while the flowers represent the female sexual organs. The ribbon dance that weaves in-and-out represents the act of intercourse.

While Beltane is sex-positive/body-positive holiday (and a good opportunity to talk to youngsters about both subjects), it’s a holiday that celebrates all creativity. 

The customary lighting of the bonfires at Beltane honors the sun itself as we rotate toward summer, when this enormous life-giving star comes into its glory to give the earth the necessary energy to grow in every way.

A close-up of the Maypole braid once the dance is over and the Maypole dance in full procession (Kaya, my oldest daughter, is the one wearing a mask and laughing), Beltane 2013 as celebrated at my home with my coven).

The Origin Story of Beltane

The May Queen and The Green Man of Beltane represent the blossoming of new life that becomes so visually evident in May.

Beltane celebrants worship at the altar of the Goddess as she becomes the Lover of All Things Living, a goddess who goes by many different names — Aphrodite, Astarte, Flora, Maia, Oshan, Queen Maeve, or Fairy Queen. Specifically, we worship at the altar of sex magic she performs when she beds the Green Man.

While the growth of new life is mostly the result of reproduction, that doesn’t mean it’s not also a celebration of sexuality — in all the varied ways such desire can be expressed.

While I’m not totally convinced these deities exist, I do believe in the meaning of their stories. These metaphors are so layered and complex, I can return to them again and again, and always discover something new about the vast world around me or the vast world within.

3 Ways to Celebrate Beltane

Before I dive into ways to celebrate Beltane, I want to say I’ve never forced my kids to participate in my coven’s Beltane activities while they were growing up.

I did make sure there were activities suitable for them to do if they did chose to participate — which they almost always did, even when they hit the awkward age of puberty when most teens won’t even look at you (except to maybe roll their eyes)!

Below are 3 ways I’ve celebrated Beltane with my coven and my daughters, which you can enjoy with your own friends, family, or coven on May 1st.

  1. Make Rainbow Hats

When I still officiated the rituals for my coven, I often referred to the book Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Traditions by Starhawk, Diane Baker, and Anne Hill.

One of the activities in this book includes making rainbow hats from paper plates for everyone to wear to honor all the colors of nature.

The coven I practiced with consisted of mostly queer witches. As such, I’ve always been acutely aware of how heterosexual the symbols and story of Beltane can appear be.

These rainbow hats celebrate all the forms of love, while paying homage to the pride flag and strong symbol of inclusivity for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

 Pride flag flying proud

  1. Make Floral Crowns

At the Waldorf-inspired public school that my youngest daughter Story attended, May Day (Beltane) was a big deal — maybe even a rite of passage.

Depending on what grade a child was in, they had different responsibilities to perform during the festivities. This included everything from an elaborate sword dance to the customary Maypole dance.

I have a vague recollection of dancing around a Maypole at least once at the public elementary school I attended — a mess of boy-girl partners getting entangled as we attempted to weave in and out while holding our designated ribbons to create the classic braid that eventually comes to adorn the tall pole.

At Story’s school, the parents were under strict orders to bring bouquets of flowers to the school on the morning of the festival. We all helped weave the floral crowns the everyone was expected to wear.

Me with my daughter Story wearing our floral crowns (May 2005)

How to Make Floral Crowns for Beltane

These floral crowns are easier to make than you might expect, and a great way to upcycle old bed sheets.

  1. Tear the latter into strips approximately one inch wide and three feet long (you can always trim the excess).
  2. Next, choose three strands.
  3. Leaving a few inches of loose ribbon, tie one end together and then begin braiding, tucking the stems of the flowers in as you go (trim flowers so there are a few inches of stem to be tucked in).
  4. When you’re ready, make another knot by tying both ends together to create a custom-fit crown for each person’s unique head size.

Hint: Carnations and mums are inexpensive and particularly durable when it comes to such manipulation. You can also use sheets to make the ribbons for your own Maypole, or purchase the really cheap spools from a local fabric store.

  1. Build a Bonfire and Feed the Fairies!

 

Samhain is considered the Celtic New Year, as this is a time of year when everything is dying, just before winter comes to cloak us in darkness, with shorter days and longer nights. Samhain is when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest.

For Samhain, I always build an altar devoted to my ancestors and to my dearly departed. When I practice with my coven, the altar becomes populated with portraits of their beloved dead, too.

As we sit with these ghosts, we take turns telling stories about the people who have passed beyond the veil as a way to keep them alive in spirit. 

We also feed the dead. I’ve done everything from simply placing a plate of food in a cemetery, to cooking for people experiencing homelessness.

Like Samhain, the veil between the worlds also grows thin at Beltane. Only in the spring, the underworld materializes as the realm of the fairies — the otherworldly guardians of the sacred spark of life (which the traditional bonfires also represent).

During Beltane, we feed the fairies as we fed the dead on Samhain. We do this by leaving little offerings of milk and honey in places like the hollow of a tree, or the natural basin that a rock provides.

Just as I commune with my ancestors on Samhain, on Beltane I like to gather with my community and rejoice in all that we are actively currently creating, have created, or plan to create.

This tradition also includes the celebrating kids graduating high school, babies being made, and other big exciting life changes. In 2015, this involved a ritual I did around the April release date of my debut novel, Fig.

Fairy Tales and Legends Based on Beltane

 There is a legend and a fairytale that each stem from the fiery rites of Beltane — Robin Hood and Cinderella.

Beltane celebrates the Fairy Queen, who appears in May just as all of nature is abuzz with bees that are busy pollinating all those honey-scented dandelions that suddenly sprinkle the world like dots of floral sunshine.

Beltane specifically rejoices in the May Queen’s sexual union with the Green Man, the God of All Living Things. The Green Man’s more ancient name (as detailed in Circle Round) was actually Robin Hood, who was known as “the huntsman who lives under the Greenwood Tree” (Starhawk, Baker & Hill, pgs. 173-174). 

The legendary Robin Hood “took his name from [this deity] meaning ‘Rob in the hood’—the hood worn by the Good People, the Fairies”—a character who also dressed in camouflage to blend into the forest in which he too dwelled, he was a trickster god who taught sometimes difficult lessons to those who demonstrated greed (Starhawk, Baker & Hill, pg. 174).

The act of generosity is focal to Beltane as a way to show gratitude to the bounty to come. Summer grows the harvest we need in order to make it through yet another winter — much like Robin Hood, the legendary figure, stole from the rich to give to the poor.

When you also come to understand the Green Man as a huntsman (and if you’ve read The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley), you can begin to better understand the pagan lore that Arthurian legend is rooted in as well.

As for the classic story “Cinderella,” it’s impossible to ignore all the magic afoot — whether it comes in the form of a fairy godmother (emphasis on “fairy”) or the woodland creatures and household rodents who shape shift into human chauffeurs and chaperones to get the fair maiden to the ball in this famous rags to riches story.

In some versions of the tale (including that of the Brothers Grimm) a young Cinderella visits the hazel tree that has been planted atop her mother’s grave to both to weep and to pray.

While the Maypole is indeed a phallic symbol, and the act of dancing around it a recreation of procreation, it’s also representative of the Tree of Life. This brings more meaning to the Greenwood tree the huntsman Rob of the Hood lives beneath.

In older tellings of these stories, it was suggested that the ball Cinderella attends was a Beltane festival instead — and a masquerade party, too.

It’s believed that these springtime bonfires acted as a time for people to practice a-once-a-year night of debauchery and polyamory.

As the fires burned late into the night and the partygoers consumed more and more mead, wine, or beer, these masked couples stole off into the woods to consummate the sacred fertility rites of the god and the goddess. And because they wore masks, no one “knew” who they’d coupled with, thus avoiding attachments and jealousy.

It’s also believed that in addition to acting as a release valve for year-round stress (no pun intended), because people gathered together from different villages, this practice was likely one employed to help diversify the gene pool.

This would certainly explain the reason why the prince in “Cinderella” must use the iconic glass slipper to find the maiden he exclusively danced with all night, as he couldn’t otherwise recognize her given she’d been hiding behind a mask the whole time. 

It appears those iconic slippers were probably not made from glass (an obviously hazardous material for such shoes to be crafted from, especially if you’re going to dance the night away, but instead were made from fur, probably from a skinned squirrel.

Once we see this princess-to-be in her original costume — masked, wearing furs, and flanked by forest creatures — she appears to be the Fairy Queen herself, the Goddess worshipped at Beltane, as she enacts her mating rituals with the Green Man.

 Cinderella under the Hazel Tree

For these reasons, when my coven gathered to dance around the Maypole, we often wore masks like we did for Samhain, when that sabbat came along to mark the other side of the witch’s wheel of life.

How Will You Celebrate Beltane This Year? 

With my oldest daughter Kaya dead, my youngest daughter in college, and the natural coming-and-going of people in my life, I am a more solitary witch now than I was when I was younger. My Beltane rituals have changed a bit over the years.

This year, I will rise just before dawn and wash my face with the dew on the grass in my yard as the sun breaks the horizon. I’ll then take a spiritual bath made from milk and honey, rose petals, gold mica, grave dirt, ground oatmeal, and cascarilla powder.

Because I practice Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, I will create an arrangement on my altar inside to commemorate the day. I will then burn a Beltane spell candle I made, my intention for this year focused on finishing a novella I began writing in the November of 2020.

Three Maypole Spell Candles I crafted. I made these to look like tiny Maypoles with real dried flowers toward the top. Each candle is then rolled in a special blend of “fairy dust,” also made by me! My candle magic is available at www.AnangkaArts.Etsy.com.

I’ll probably decorate the Maypole that always stands erect in our backyard, but I don’t know if I’ll actually dance around it, or just watch the ribbons ripple in the breeze.

I will certainly plant more flowers in Kaya’s memorial garden and pull some weeds. Once night falls, I’ll light a small bonfire to sit beside with my husband so we can appreciate our twenty-second Beltane together as a couple.

How do you celebrate Beltane? Join the Writual Society and share your stories and tips with other like-minded spiritualists and Tarot lovers!

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About the Author

 Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

Sarah Elizabeth Schantz (she/her/hers) grew up in a bookstore and discovered the Occult when she was 9-years-old. She’s been a practicing witch ever since. Her novel Fig was selected as A Best Read of the Year by NPR and won a Colorado Book Award in 2016. Her next novel, Roadside Altars, has chapters based on the major arcana. Schantz employs the Tarot and other divinatory techniques to inform her writing process, and has been collaging her own Tarot deck since 2006. She is faculty at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and teaches her own writing series, (W)rites of Passage, and Tarot Tuesdays, a generative writing series that uses the Tarot. Her apothecary, The Witch Next Door, offers Tarot readings, customized rituals, and handcrafted spells.

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