Beltane: Welcome summer the ancient Celtic way

Young girls in fancy matching dresses dance around a Maypole with ribbons in their hands, others dance while crowd looks on

Children in Wiltshire dance around a Maypole, an integral part of ancient Beltane celebrations. Photo by Anguskirk, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MAY 1: An ancient Gaelic festival ushering in the joy of summer blossoms across Ireland and Scotland, parts of Europe and in Wiccan and Pagan communities worldwide, as Beltane. (In the Southern Hemisphere, Wiccans and Pagans mark Samhain.)

Enormous bonfires light a night sky that paints the backdrop for elaborate costumes, reenactments, dancing, fire-jumping and a revival of ancient rituals. Edinburgh now draws tens of thousands of attendees annually for its Beltane Fire Festival, which boasts hundreds of volunteers and performers; in some areas of Scotland and Ireland, remnants of old Beltane customs still remain. Halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, Beltane has always ranked among the most significant of pagan festivals.

As usual, some of the most interesting Beltane headlines are coming from Scotland. This year, for example, the Herald and other Scottish news sources are reporting on a special “family day” program that’s been added to the huge Edinburgh festival.

BELTANE: FLOWERS, BONFIRES AND A MAYPOLE DANCE

The earliest Irish literature mentions Beltane, and for the pastoral Celts this festival marked a key time of year. In daylight hours, cattle were adorned in flowers and driven to summer pastures; at nighttime, people and cattle walked or leapt between bonfires in a cleansing and protective ritual. During this sacred time of year, early pagan customs were meant to protect crops, cattle and people from disease and other forces of nature. (Wikipedia has details.) A home’s doors and windows were decorated with May flowers, and holy wells were visited. The morning dew of Beltane was believed to hold unique qualities that conserved youthfulness and beauty. Candles and hearth fires that had been put out on Beltane Eve were re-lit with the Beltane bonfire.

Dark, nighttime, outdoors, crowds in front of building with pillars holding enormous bonfires

The Beltane Fire Festival at Edinburgh. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As Samhain commemorates the dark half of the year, Beltane celebrates the light half of the year. New life springs forth, the sun returns in full strength and energy is abundant. In centuries past, both Beltane and Samhain were regarded as days of “no time”—that is, when veils between this world and the other world are thinnest. With this belief, pagans would protect themselves and their homes from spirits and mischievous faeries with rituals and natural objects, such as rowan branches, on the outside of their homes. Dancing would commence throughout the countryside and, following a promiscuous night in the woods, young people would gather in the morning to weave the ribbons of the Maypole. Feasts ensued, which were often accompanied by athletic tournaments, costumed performances, an elected king and queen and the decoration of flower wreaths and garlands.

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Categories: Wiccan / Pagan

Lammas, Lughnasadh: Christians, Pagans observe ancient grain harvest festival

Wheat in field with blue sky in background

Lammas has historically been a festival of the wheat harvest, accompanied by athletic games, feasting and blessings. Photo by Chaitanya K., courtesy of Pixabay

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MONDAY, AUGUST 1: As the heat of July breaks into August—Christians, Pagans and many others from areas of England, Ireland and Scotland mark the feast of Lammas.

An ancient festival of the wheat harvest, Lammas—or Lughnasadh—has long been called “the feast of first fruits.” In England and some English-speaking countries, August 1 is “Lammas Day;” historically, it was customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to church for a blessing. For many, Lammas was a time of gratitude, as the hard work of planting gave way to the bounty of the harvest.

Interested in the bread traditions of world faiths? Check out Lynne Meredith Golodner’s “The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads,” which includes recipes, photos and engaging stories of the place where bread and faith intersect.

Loaf of wheat bread cut into slices on wooden cutting board

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the Neopagan and Wiccan Wheels of the Year, Lughnasadh is one of eight sabbats and the first of three harvest festivals (the other harvest festivals being Mabon, or autumn equinox, and Samhain). Today, common foods on the table at Lughnasadh are apples, grains, breads and berries. (Learn more from Wicca.com.) Some mark this festival on July 31, though it is most widely observed on the first day of August.

For Christians, Lammas has been a time for blessing loaves made of fresh wheat. In time, Christians also created a version of the Scottish Highland Quarter Cake for Lammas, which bore Christian symbols on the top. (Catholic Culture has a recipe.)

Lughnasadh customs were commonplace until the 20th century, though evidence of ongoing tradition is seen in the popular Puck Fair of County Kerry and Christian pilgrimages. (Wikipedia has details on Lammas and Lughnassadh.) Throughout Ireland’s history, significant mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh; the custom was brought into Christianity when Christian pilgrimages were undertaken near August 1. The most well-known pilgrimage of this type is Reek Sunday, a trek to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July that continues to draw tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year.

Family reunions are still common among the Irish diaspora near August 1, and in Ireland, several towns have recently created Lughnasadh festivals and fairs to parallel Puck Fair. For centuries, Lammas has been a time to gather wild berries—bilberries, in particular, but also blackberries and blueberries–for eating, baking and making wine.

 

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Categories: ChristianWiccan / Pagan