Beltane is the pre-Christian Celtic fire festival that is celebrated near May 1st and marks the crossing of a threshold that takes us firmly into the bright season of late spring and early summer. I wrote about Beltane in a longer article last year, and so this year I wanted to share a few very simple rituals that I enjoy, rituals that help me to give thanks and connect to the living magic of the natural world. Beltane is considered a “thin time” a time when the veil between the human realm and the otherworlds thins. Specifically, this is a time when we can more easily communicate with the spirits of the land and so it is the perfect time for earth honouring ritual practices.
Here in Pemberton where I live the first of May is still considered early spring. No matter how much I might wish to get started in my garden I still have to be careful as overnight frosts can easily kill tender seedlings. However, all around me, the signs of spring awakening are definitely there. The poplar, birch and maple trees are all beginning to show their new young leaves and the wild roses outside my back door are still a long way from flowering, but I can see the first leaflets that herald their return. Soon the fields and roadsides will be a riot of color, bright with orange, yellow and purple wildflowers, but for now, that is still a promise- and one that I am eagerly awaiting.
This year we have a full moon in Scorpio on April 29th, coinciding with the time of Beltane. I have always felt Beltane to be more of a window in time, a mini-season in itself, rather than a fixed date on the calendar, so I will be celebrating it for a number of days through personal practices close to home as well as community gatherings. With this waxing moon and the gateway of Beltane approaching, I am feeling a palpable sense of earthy wonder and heightened creativity. I want to spend every minute of my day outside and I am endlessly inspired by the sight of the world waking up around me and coming into bloom. There are many ways we can express this energy and as a practitioner of yoga, I definitely enjoy the way it enlivens my physical practice, bringing greater sensuality and delight to my movement practice, but I am particularly drawn to rituals that support me in honouring the beauty of the natural world and giving me an opportunity to express my love and gratitude for it directly.
Making Offerings to The Land
In preparation for the time of planting seeds, I like to tidy up my garden spaces and make ritual offerings to the land. This can certainly include nourishment for the soil itself, but the ritual component for me is more about saying simple prayers of thanks and sharing offerings of plant material that I consider sacred.
I like to make an offering blend with local sagebrush, red cedar, and dried roses. Near the time of Beltane, I will carry it with me whenever I am out and offer it to the tree folk and the plant people that surround my home.
The forest behind my house is filled with graceful cedar trees and large Douglas Fir. I consider these stately trees to be the grandmothers and the grandfathers of the woods. I love to sprinkle offerings around their roots as I walk by them and often stop to give them a good long hug. I also make offerings to the red elder trees whose fragrant white blossoms I will harvest for spring cordial, the magical yarrow whose pink and white flowers will offer me medicine, and the nettle patches that give me their nourishing greens.
Try this and you will see that you have so many beings to give thanks to. Walk through your own yard or the parks near your home and make a gift of your blessings and your prayers. They will be felt and gratefully received.
Creating Natural Altars
Another magical practice I love is to create outdoor altars. I will usually do this using natural objects only. Flowers and seeds, rocks and crystals, simple offerings of grains or water. If I want to add written prayers or wishes, I use unbleached paper. You can also use seed paper which is super fun!
I tend to make these simple outdoor altars in the woods, creating a place in which to give offerings at spots that I consider sacred or meaningful to me. Often these are at the base of a certain tree, but not always. I also like to do this near my garden. There is a particular trembling aspen tree ( I have a special appreciation for these trees) that grows right next to my garden and offers my medicinal herbs dappled shade through the heat of the summer. I love this tree and often adorn it in various ways throughout the year. At Beltane, I like to give this tree a little extra attention.
When I create an altar outdoor like this I am not doing it for any other reason than to simply make an offering of beauty and love. I will often sit in these places because they are special to me, and sometimes I might even meditate, sing or pray there, but I am primarily thinking of these altars as gifts to the spirit of that place. If you have a special place you love or a tree that you care for you should try this practice. It is a joyful and creative ritual that feels really good.
Making Wishes for The Earth
Human beings have long had the practice of making wishes in places that feel sacred. These might be natural springs or wells, ancient trees, high peaks, or rock formations. When I was in India last fall we went to the temple of Mansa Devi in Haridwar where we were given the opportunity to tie a red string around a sacred tree within the temple itself. This is a wishing tree, sacred to Mansa Devi herself and is considered a very auspicious place of power.
One of the rituals associated with Beltane is that of the May Bush, in Ireland May Bushes (typically Hawthorn, Rowan or Sycamore) were decorated with flowers which were thought to ward off evil and bring good luck. To this day, the practice of creating a Maypole by stripping a sapling or bough of branches and wrapping it with ribbons is still practiced at Beltane. In some places, it was customary to dance around a communal May Bush/May Pole, and at the end of the festivities, it may be burnt in the bonfire. Many people would also have a Maypole or May Bush outside their own homes. James George Frazer in The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion writes, “The intention of these customs is to bring home to the village, and to each house, the blessings which the tree-spirit has in its power to bestow.”
I have always loved the idea of wishing trees and so along with my practice of natural altars and offerings I also like to tie cloth ribbons on the branches of trees as a symbol of my hopes and wishes. A beautiful practice for Beltane is to make prayers for the continuing health and abundance of the earth. As Beltane occurs right at the cusp of the growing season it is a lovely practice to speak aloud your hopes for the season to come as you tie your ribbons around your own personal May Bush or tree. The earth needs the support of our conscious action right now as we face the reality of ecological disaster in so many parts of the world- but prayers also help. Say them out loud and speak from your heart. I promise you, the earth is listening.