Celtic Fire Festival: Beltane Symbols and Rituals

Celebrate Beltane with traditional festive rituals that welcome in the summer season and help your wishes for the new season come true.

Understand the meaning behind the ancient celebrations of Beltane and learn how you too can participate in all of the festivities.

The dance of the Maypole

The most well-known symbol of Beltane, or May Day as it is more commonly known, is the maypole. The young men would go off to the woods and select the straightest tree they could find - a pine or birch. With much ceremony, they would cut it down, drag it back to the village and then erect it on the village green.

celtic fire festival beltane

As a phallic symbol, it penetrated the womb of the Earth and its spirit of vegetation, therefore fertilising the land.

A garland was placed atop the maypole and red and white ribbons hung from it. As the men and women danced gaily around the maypole, weaving the ribbons tight along the trunk, so the garland was gradually pulled down, symbolising the actual act of sex.

Beltane fires

celtic fire festival beltane

The Beltane fires were fundamental to the ancient celebrations. Cattle were driven through them to clean off their ticks and mites, to gain immunity from disease. People also jumped over the fires to symbolise burning off their past. Beltane fires were built with wood from the nine sacred trees and had to be kindled in special ways.

Purifying fire

You can make a small bonfire. Build it with special twigs or have each of your friends bring a contribution. If indoors, you can make a 'fire' by putting a candle in a central place. By jumping (carefully) over the fire or candle you will have performed your own purification ritual.

The hawthorn tree

The blossoming of the hawthorn tree heralds the onset of Beltane. All the rituals in this festival involve the use of May blossom, from the dressing of the maypole to the garlands in the girls' hair.

The hawthorn is closely associated with fairies, who sometimes grant wishes. The traditional way to ask for a wish is to leave strips of coloured cloth or ribbon on the tree.

celtic fire festival beltane

You can symbolise the hawthorn tree with a pot plant. Choose cloth of an appropriate colour:
Blue for protection
Pink for romance
Purple for knowledge
Green for prosperity
Leave a gift for the spirit of the tree and, when your wish has been granted, return and leave another gift to say thank you.

Heart Tonic

When used as a herb, hawthorn has a great propensity to heal the heart and to open it up to spiritual growth and love. The flowers, leaves and berries are all used in herbal lore as heart tonics, where they will bring the heart back into balance. May blossom tea is good to drink in spring as it will improve the heart and its circulation after the cold still of winter.

Young lovers have always eaten fresh leaves of this blossom, known as 'bread and cheese', as they wander along the hedgerows on their way to a secret tryst in the woods!

Beltane headdress and garlands

celticfire festival beltane

For your celebrations, wearing green symbolises the fertility of Beltane. Make a wreath of flowers to wear on your head to symbolise the Queen of the May and a wreath of green leaves to symbolise the Lord of the Greenwood.
If you do the work consciously and with awareness, then it will be a ritual in itself. Ivy, symbolic of everlasting life because of its spiral-growth, is excellent as a base. Twist several lengths together in a round to fit your head. Weave into the wreath whatever flowers and herbs you can find in your garden and those of your friends.

You can gather from the hedgerows, but be wary of picking rare wild flowers. Cowslips were traditionally given on May Day morning as tokens of friendship and love, so they are good to include. Rosemary is a symbol of fertility and adds a lovely scent, and of course including home May blossom will make it truly special for Beltane.

Garlands of May blossom is what is meant in the song 'here we go gathering knots in May' - it is not nuts that are gathered! Get up before the dawn and then, wearing your celebratory clothes and headdresses, enjoy the Beltane sunrise and the start of the summer season.

Sacrificial cakes

At the Beltane fires, cakes were prepared that related to sacrificial burning.

One part of the cake was blackened and the cake broken up according to how many people were present.

celtic fire festival beltane cake

The cakes were ceremonially shared out, the person who received the blackened piece of cake was the Beltane 'carline' - they would be 'devoted' or offered up.

The company would then make a show of pretending to toss this person onto the fire and others would rescue them. This role represents a symbolic scapegoat, so after the ceremony be extra nice to your carline and thank them for taking on this role for you.

Sacred masks for marriage

celtic fire festival beltane mask

The Beltane rites included the celebration of the sacred marriage, when ordinary mortals embodied the god and goddess. By joining this masquerade, it was easier for people to feel the presence of their deities' divine energy.
You and your lover can make a mask each or, if you are single, you can make both and put them on your alter as a talisman.

Make or buy a plain half-head mask. The man should decorate his with fresh green leaves, including oak, so he may be the embodiment of the Green Man - an ancient spirit of nature. You should decorate your mask with flowers, shells, feathers and ribbons. Wear your mask to help remove any inhibitions you may have about joining in Beltane.


Celtic Fire Festival: Celebrating Beltane