Bealtaine is both the month of May (Mí Bhealtaine) and a very specific day – the 1st of May – the day of protection. ‘Bealtaine’ translates as the bright fire; a festival of light, when the fires of purification were lit. An agricultural festival marking the start of summer and a return to farmable weather.
Cows would be driven between two bonfires as a purification ritual, as they were brought from winter pasture land into summer pastureland – the fire made sure that they did not bring any of the dark or cold half of the year with them into the summer side. No one was taking chances at this moment between the end of old season and the start of the new. Sure it was an optimistic time but killing off any potential to pessimism or failure was the urgency and the means of future success.
Traditionally the day was about protecting cattle and the churn. The churn was blessed with a garland of rowan and a sprig of it may well be tied to the tails of livestock to keep bad luck or misfortune at bay. Any butter made would have the blessing put upon it too. New butter was often made with the petals of yellow flowers to stain it with a golden hue of sunshine – to invoke its riches.
Often yellow flowers, such as gorse, buttercups, primroses and marigolds were gathered to lay across entrances or decorate homes – yellow being a representation of the sun and all the power of summer – another invocation of the positive. In some customs yellow flowers were also the potent magic to scare the dark things away – be that to ward off the evil eye or bad vibes of the neighbourhood begrudgers or to dazzle and distract the fairies who come to seal your milk or your peace of mind.
It was also once regular practice to rise early on Lá Bealtaine and collect flowering sprigs from rowans and other may flowering natives to hang across doorways, gates or to dress outside a window – those ‘Bealtaine boughs’ offered protection via the sympathetic magic of being full of life. The newly emerging foliage or the fruitful potential of the flowers being a testament to the transformative power of the sun and summer – the lush green a herald and a celebration of fresh beginnings, the flowers a charm upon the fertility of the land and the fecundity of the livestock.
The day was also about protecting your luck (positive energy) and so to lend or give away milk, salt, butter, water or gríosach (a red coal ember- a firelighter as such) was to give away with it your luck for the rest of the year. Milk, salt, butter, water and fire where the 5 essential elements of prosperity, happiness and survival. Today was not about generosity, plenty of time for that to come, today was for protecting what’s yours and increasing the good energies to bring forth the impending bounty that will later fuel your generosity.
The day too was about protecting your health and nettle soup was often the fortifying meal. The lush fresh tops so full of new life, so well protected with sharp stinging armoury – a touch of ingesting the protective nature, well that and all the health building nutrients too.
So safety and strength to yours and to mine, Beannachtaí na Bealtaine agaibh go léir and I’ll see you on the bright side of the year.