Beltane (/ˈbɛlteɪn/) is the Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly it is held on 1 May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and thesummer solstice. festivities typically begin the evening before, on the last night of April (Walpurgis Night). It's a time to welcome the abundance of the fertile earth, and a day that has a long (and sometimes scandalous) history.
Beltane was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May) and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were held at that time to protect them from harm, both natural and supernatural, and this mainly involved the "symbolic use of fire". There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products and people, and to encourage growth. The sí (often described as 'the spirits' or 'the fairies') were thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain) and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease the sí. Beltaine was a "spring time festival of optimism" during which "fertility ritual again was important, perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun".
This Sabbat is about new life, fire, passion and rebirth, so there are all kinds of creative ways you can set up for the season. Depending on how much space you have, you can try some or even all of these ideas -- obviously, someone using a bookshelf as an altar will have less flexibility than someone using a table, but use what calls to you most.
Colors of the SeasonThis is a time when the earth is lush and green as new grass and trees return to life after a winter of dormancy. Use lots of greens, as well as bright spring colors -- the yellow of the daffodils, forsythia and dandelions; the purples of the lilac; the blue of a spring sky or a robin's egg. Decorate your altar with any or all of these colors in your altar cloths, candles, or colored ribbons.
Fertility SymbolsThe Beltane holiday is the time when, in some traditions, the male energy of the god is at its most potent. He is often portrayed with a large and erect phallus, and other symbols of his fertility include antlers, sticks, acorns, and seeds. You can include any of these on your altar. Consider adding a small Maypole centerpiece -- there are few things more phallic than a pole sticking up out of the ground!
In addition to the lusty attributes of the god, the fertile womb of the goddess is honored at Beltane as well. She is the earth, warm and inviting, waiting for seeds to grow within her. Add a goddess symbol, such as a statue, cauldron, cup, or other feminine items. Any circular item, such as a wreath or ring, can be used to represent the goddess as well.
Flowers and FaeriesBeltane is the time when the earth is greening once again -- as new life returns, flowers are abundant everywhere. Add a collection of early spring flowers to your altar -- daffodils, hyacinths, forsythia, daisies, tulips -- or consider making a floral crown to wear yourself. You may even want to pot some flowers or herbs as part of your Sabbat ritual.
In some cultures, Beltane is sacred to the Fae. If you follow a tradition that honors the Faerie realm, leave offerings on your altar for your household helpers.
Fire FestivalBecause Beltane is one of the four fire festivals in modern Pagan traditions, find a way to incorporate fire into your altar setup. Although one popular custom is to hold a bonfire outside, that may not be practical for everyone, so instead it can be in the form of candles (the more the better), or a table-top brazier of some sort. A small cast-iron cauldron placed on a heat-resistant tile makes a great place to build an indoor fire.
Other Symbols of Beltane
- May baskets
- Honey, oats, milk
- Antlers or horns
- Fruit such as cherries, mangos, pomegranates, peaches
- Swords, lances, arrows