Today marks the beginning of the season of light. Halfway between the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, Beltane has been celebrated among the Celtic cultures for eons.
So many people suffer from seasonal depression in the winter months when the sun hides his face from the earth and plant life lies dormant, awaiting the return of warmth and light. Beltane is the day to rejoice in the return of the sun, to revel in the beauty of life, and to appreciate the bounty of spring.
Today is about the central aspects of human existence and celebrating the joy they bring.
Food. Sex. Light. Growth. Warmth.
All these things we cannot live without. They provide the basis for our survival, as individuals and as a species. On Beltane, we honor these things and what they bring to us as the seasons change from scarcity to plenty.
In past times, and even now for many people in rural areas or people who struggle beneath the poverty line, winter was a time of scraping by with what you had gathered the previous summer. Winter‘s rations were often monotonous and carefully portioned to ensure families could survive the cold, cropless months until spring. If rot set into storage spaces, it could decimate an entire village.
With the return of spring, animals come out of hibernation, crops are planted, and wild fruits and vegetables begin to surface. This marks a return to variety in diet, of lighter fare and fresher foods on the table. Beltane is a celebration of food, an offering of spring’s blossoms in expectation of summer’s bounty.
Spring is all about fertility. The birds, the bees, the bunnies, the trees — everything yearns to reproduce. The earth comes alive with procreation, attempting to ensure survival of the young in the warmer months.
At Beltane, people celebrated sex and fertility. As the last of three fertility holidays (Imbolc and Ostara being the first two), Beltane is the full flush of blushing spring as it ripens into summer. Marked by handfastings and passion, young couples would initiate their love by leaping over a fire together. Some unions lasted the night, others lasted a year and a day (the “trial marriage” of handfasting), and yet others blossomed into marriage.
Bonfires and warm spring air — what better time to contribute to the continuation of the human species?
Winter was a dark time, especially in the north where the Celts marked the turning of the seasons by the presence or absence of light. Samhain, the Celtic new year, is a celebration and honoring of death and darkness. Beltane represents the return to the season of light and life and the renewing of the earth. None of spring’s gifts would be possible without the sun.
Humans need light. The sun gives us vitamins and helps our bodies release endorphins (and in my case, more redness than melanin). It is also a symbol of hope. If the winter solstice is dawn, Beltane is a shining bright morning. Light chases away the ghosts of winter darkness and turns simple scenes to dusky gold.
Winter is a season of stagnation, of biding time. It is a quiet season with its quiet comforts. With spring, stagnation and biding give way to budding and growth. Animals begin to mature; plants don their leafy cloaks and reach their arms toward the sun. It is a time of renewal and vigor, where the sighs of winter can be sloughed off to reveal brightness and life.
At Beltane, we celebrate the growing and thriving world around us and marvel at its wonders and its willingness to sustain us for another season. It is a time to gather ourselves, mind and body, to prepare for summer planting and harvest — both literal and metaphorical.
Above all, Beltane is a fire feast. Winter is cold, but spring returns the sun’s warmth to the land. Fire connects us to the sun. Fire consumes, but it also sustains. Fire is a tool. It forges steel from raw metal and refines gold and silver, burning away the dross. It seals ties and cooks our food. It warms our homes and brings us joy as we watch its dancing flames. Fire is to be respected; for all it gives, it can strip all away.
Fire is passion and life. Fire is anger and love and conviction. It purifies and makes new, just as spring makes the earth new after winter. On Beltane, the Celts would build fires from the nine sacred woods and light them to symbolize the return of warmth. This fire would lend its embers to all neighbors, who would use it to light the fires on their hearths.
Beltane is a day of celebration. What will you make new this Beltane? What will you celebrate today?
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