For those who follow an Earth-based spiritual tradition, this is a sacred time of the year, celebrated in ways that promote a joyful communion both with each other and with the Green World of nature. Although the practices of modern pagans, Wiccans, Druids, and other groups may differ, in general Beltaine is a time of connection, of honoring the "three Ls:" life, light, and love. ("Beltaine" is the Gaelic spelling; it's also known as "Beltane.")
Much of the inspiration for modern practices is derived from the tradition of the Celtic peoples of the northwest European fringe for whom this festival has always been particularly important. The early Celts divided the year into two halves: the light and the dark, summer and winter, to mark the spiralling wheel of time. To celebrate these times of transition, the Celts established two great yearly festivals, each at the threshold of the new cycle: Samhain, (November 1st) opens the door into the dark half of the year, while Beltaine (May 1st) ushers in the cycle of summer. At Samhain, the rituals recognize themes of separation, darkness, decrease, cold, and death. At Beltaine we celebrate life's unity, increase, light, and growth.
Fires play an important part in all the major Celtic festivals for they are an earthly reflection of the Sun, once seen as the great Source of all life. When the Druids and their successors gathered the wood of nine sacred trees and raised the Beltaine fires on hilltops throughout the British Isles on May Eve, they were performing a real act of magic, for the fires were lit in order to bring the sun's light down to earth. When the wood burst into flames, it proclaimed the triumph of the light over the dark half of the year. In Scotland, every fire in the household was extinguished, a brief time of darkness followed, and then all the villagers climbed the hill to rekindle their flame from the new source with great rejoicing.
The maypole, that well-known symbol of summer's return, was popular in the more English-influenced parts of the British Isles, especially Wales and Cornwall. On May Eve in Wales, country-people of all ages headed for the woods singing songs of May-time and blowing loud horns. They felled a tall birch-tree and hauled it back to the village on a wagon drawn by oxen. At sunrise, the young people decked their houses with the branches of May and the maypole was set up on the village green, bright with garlands of flowers and colored bows, rosettes and ribbons. In Ireland, many households created a May bush to be their "Tree of Life" during this seasonal tide. A bough, preferably of hawthorn, was decorated with flowers, ribbons, paper streamers and other bright scraps of material, and sometimes a golden ball was hung from the bush, to represent the sun. Candles or rush-lights were attached to it and it was lit with all due ceremony at dusk on Beltaine Eve.
The lives of our Celtic ancestors were naturally attuned to these cycles as to the rhythm of a spiral dance. To celebrate the fruitful earth in a sacred manner was to constantly renew the ancient contract between human beings and the Divine. We, too, can feel this great turning of the Wheel of the Year in our own bodies, hearts, and minds, if we are willing to open up to the creative forces that flow through us, and learn to live in harmony and balance with each other and with the Earth. The wisdom of the Wheel of the Year can liberate us from our modern linear model of time, reminding us that death yields to life again and again.
At Beltaine, we naturally respond to the rising tide of the life force within our bodies and within the land. Even on a short walk in the countryside or neighbourhood park at this time of year, you cannot help but feel the "force that drives the green fuse through the flower," as Welsh poet Dylan Thomas called it. As all earth responds to the sun's invitation to grow and expand, the soul, too, responds to an inner calling to unfurl and express itself in the radiance of the spiritual Sun, the Higher Self. Whatever hopes, dreams and desires of your innermost self have been incubating during the dark of winter, now is the time to bring them out into the Beltaine light and let them grow to fruition.