It begins, as all things do, in darkness. Tonight, as the sun dips below the horizon, not a single light will shine in my home. Neither candle flame nor the light of a digital clock will be allowed to pierce that darkness until the first fire of the season is lit within the specially prepared bowl in the yard behind my home.
Once that fire burns brightly and its light and warmth have been dedicated to the gods of my ancestors and the spirits of the land, I will light from it a single lamp with which I will carry the flame into my home. If I lived in a house with a fireplace I might proceed to that place and while blessing the hearth, light the fire within. Instead, I will take the flame to the alter which I keep, cleansed and redressed for the occasion, where I will light a single candle, bringing the flame of the new season to the spiritual center of my home. Now we can turn the lights back on and chase away the darkness.
Now the feast can begin.
Lá Bealtaine (the ‘Day of Beltane’ or ‘May Day’ in Irish) is one of the four great festivals that mark the passage of time in the Celtic world. Coming six months after Samhain (November 1st) Beltane marks the halfway point in the Celtic year and the beginning of what is considered the warm half of the year (May 1st through October 31st). This is the ‘business part’ of the year when most of the planting, growing, harvesting, construction and traveling takes place.
There are many traditions associated with Beltane, the most obvious being the great fires that were lit on hilltops during the night. Acting as beacons in both the temporal and spiritual worlds these great fires served as points of communion between the inhabitants of both realms. People gathered from far and wide to build these fires and dance around them in a clockwise direction to ensure their own health and luck in the busy season ahead. Cattle would be lead, either between two fires or over the embers after the fires had died down, in a ceremony intended to purify and protect them from sickness and ill omen. By taking bits of the fire with them into their own homes the people brought the blessings of this night with them for the rest of the year (hearth fires were kept burning throughout the year and were only extinguished prior to these communal relighting ceremonies).
With the fires properly lit, the people could enjoy a feast comprised of the last stores left over from the previous growing season. In this way the last of the bounty of the previous harvest was used to propagate the new growing season and the circle of life and rebirth continued to turn.
Many of these traditions may seem antiquated by todays standards. It may be difficult to imagine a time when our ability to survive the winter months depended so vitally on the abundance of a single growing season. Today, when we can visit a grocery store at any time of year and find it fully stocked with fruit and vegetables which have traveled half the world to get there, the prospect of starvation seems an absurd notion.
We may congratulate ourselves (as a culture) on rising above the ‘constraints’ of an agrarian society but what have we given up in the process? Our ancestors lived in a kind of partnership with the living Earth while we choose to let others exploit it as a resource for our base consumption. If you do not have the skills to grow and store your own food you live at the mercy of those who do.
We are more than mere ‘consumers’ living on the land but not in it. We are part of the land and it is part of us. We share a spirit with it and how we treat it is a reflection on how we treat each other and ourselves.
And so tonight we will light the fires. We will call out to the spirits with whom we share this land to protect ourselves and our loved ones from any who would do us harm. We will promise, in our turn to do what we may to protect the land from those who would abuse it. We will honor this union through laughter, music, story and sacrifice. We will pray that more people begin to see the land as a living partner in mankind’s future rather than a thing to be exploited for our short term comfort and convenience.
Wisdom begins, as all things do, in darkness.