Beltaine is a Greater Sabbat of the Wiccan calendar, celebrated April 30. Beltaine (literally “fires of Bel”) was the beginning of the summer season for the Celtic peoples, named for the solar deity known in various parts of the Celtic world as Beli, Bile, Belenos, Bel and Belenus. Beltaine marks the beginning of the Spear Season, the Season of Fire, marked by the setting of the constellation of the Pleiades. Beltaine marks the half way point of the cycle of seasons which started at Samhain.

The Spear Season is the season of summer, the campaigning season for warriors in ancient times. This is when the weather was most favorable to campaigns and action. Beltaine was also the time when the Celts drove their cattle to summer pasture. The action planned in the Shield Season and commenced in the Sword Season is now well under way. The Spear Season is a season of action and achievement. You create your own reality, and this is the time of year to create that reality in earnest. Beltaine is a time of action and exploiting opportunities. Modern knights succeed through perseverance and attention to detail. The Spear is a phallic symbol, and the celebration that marks its beginning is a celebration of sensuality and life.

The Armoring ritual that turns novices into squires occurs at this time of year. It may or may not be included in our Beltaine celebration. Often the Armoring is scheduled to occur before Beltaine, so that we can focus our attention on the Armoring and relax to enjoy the separate Beltaine Sabbat.

The Armoring ritual marks the point where the newly initiated squires start their next cycle of training. This is where they begin to explore the power of ritual. They learn that ritual doesn’t necessarily involve words: One of our exercises has the squires using their imagination to use musical instruments and other things that make noise to cast a Circle without speaking a single word. They learn the true power of words. This is where the squires learn about the Song of Amergin and begin to think out their “I am” statements for the Song of Paladins I told you about earlier. Beltaine is a good time to explore who you are, being a celebration of life.

Beltaine is the one of the great Celtic fire festivals, the other being Samhain. Unlike Samhain, when we light the Sabbat fires at dusk, the Beltaine fires are lit at dawn. Traditionally horns were sounded during the lighting of the fires, sometimes going on for hours. We haven’t revived this custom as it would drive the neighbors batty.

Beltaine is an ancient celebration of fertility and life, which is another reason that it is the Season of the Spear. The crowning of a young girl as “May Queen”, representing the Maiden Goddess, is still practiced throughout Great Britain. Originally a “May King” representing the Young God, Robin, or Jack-in-the-Green, was crowned too.

Dancing around the Maypole is a Beltaine custom which continues in the British Isles to this day and which has been adopted by modern Wiccans in their Beltaine celebrations. The maypole (there’s that spear again) is an ancient fertility symbol. Originally the British Maypole was a young tree which was chopped down on May Day and trimmed of all but a few branches at the top. It was then decorated and raised on the village green. In later years many towns had permanent poles. In 1644, Cromwell’s government banned and many of the permanent poles came down. When the king Charles II was restored to office on May 29, 1660, this prohibition was lifted and some of the Maypoles returned.

“Birching” is a traditional Beltaine custom. Traditionally, between sunset and dawn, the May Birchers would make their rounds, affixing branches or sprigs to the doors of their neighbor’s houses. The trees or plants were chosen for their symbolism or because their name rhymed with whatever message the Birchers thought most appropriate. For example, a flowering hawthorn branch was a compliment. Lime or pear branches were also compliments, as they rhymed with “prime” and “fair.” Rowan was a sign of affection as its other name, “wicken” rhymed with the endearing slang term “chicken”. A Thorn branch indicated that the occupant was an object of scorn. Holly, briar and plum were insults, rhyming with folly, liar and glum. This distribution of greenery was obviously an indication of how a person was regarded in their community, and could help them to mend their ways. I some places this developed into the making of May garlands, which led to Beltaine being called “Garland Day.” Children used to go from door to door with their garlands singing songs and receiving small gifts or coins. Often the garlands were in the form of a hoop, and in some places games evolved where a ball was thrown through or over the hoop. Sometime they took the form of floral globes, often with a May Doll suspended inside. In places like Horncastle in Lincolnshire this developed into peeled willow wands covered with cowslips called “May Gads,” which were carried in procession on May morning to the site of an old Roman temple where the Maypole stood. There they would strike them together to scatter the blossoms in honor of the first day of summer. Although it has died out in most places, a shadow of it still lives on with the custom of leaving hawthorn or some other complimentary plant outside of a bride’s door on the eve of a wedding.

Order of Paladins members gather together at Beltaine to make up May Gads which we can use in our rituals and take home for good luck afterwards. Alternatively, we may decorate a Spear or Staff with greenery and blossoms to be used in the Sabbat ritual.

Another related custom was the dressing of wells and springs, in keeping with the Celtic customs of venerating such springs as connections to the otherworld. This custom continues in many parts of Britain today, although the designs are usually Christian now. We don’t have a well at the Motherhouse to decorate, but you can set up a cauldron of water in the Motherhouse garden and decorate it in a similar manner for the occasion.

Another Beltaine custom is the collection of dew. Traditionally May first is considered a propitious time to collect “wild water”, that is, dew or water from flowing sources such as streams, rivers and oceans. This water is then used to make healing drinks and potions for the coming year. Young girls would go out before dawn on May Day to collect dew and wash their faces with it. This was supposed to bring beauty and luck to them. In ancient times it was also collected and kept to treat consumption, goiter, and various other ills.

“Hobby Horses” also make their appearance at Beltaine. This is similar to the custom of Hodening that occurs at Samhain and Yule. The most usual form is a hoop frame, six feet in diameter, covered with cloth skirting. In front is a wooden horse’s head, with jaws that snap. A man stands inside, his head hidden by a mask. The Hobby Horse goes about with a group of attendants, the most important of which is often a “Teaser” or “Club Man” who carries a padded club and wears grotesque clothing. As they process down the streets the Hobby Horse will rush at girls and try to trap them under his skirts. This is thought to bring them fertility and/or a husband. The inside of the skirts was formerly smeared with blacking to leave a mark on the girl of her good fortune, but this is not done in modern survivals of this custom. Another discontinued custom was the sprinkling of water on the onlookers by the Hobby Horse when it stopped at a pool to “drink.” Every so often the horse sinks down as if dying and the songs change from happy ones to sadder ones. The Teaser gently strokes him with his club. But after this brief pause the Hobby horse leaps up, the music returns to happier tunes and the procession continues.

This is a tradition that you can have a lot of fun with, and the children have fun with it too.

Beltaine 2014 2nd draft