From Winter Dreams Come the Fires of Spring
Compiled by Bruce Driscoll
Spring comes with promise and growth, bringing life and warmth to the grays and browns of left-over winter. If, as T. S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” then surely May is the month of renewal and joy. The ancient Celts celebrated the turning of the year as a great wheel, and the earth as the womb of life. Their beliefs were lunar focused as opposed to later groups who were solar focused.
They believed that everything was conceived in darkness and then brought into the light and this belief provided a common flow across all of their traditions and rituals. Just as babies are conceived in darkness and seeds are sown beneath the earth, the Celtic day started with darkness and moved into the light. Therefore, the Celtic day began at sundown and moved into the light. So did their concept of the year.
The year was divided into the “dark months” and the “light months”. It started in the dark months with Samhain at sundown on October 31st. While there were specific rituals and traditions associated with the solstices and equinoxes, the principle festivals were centred around the four fire festivals of the year. Of these, Samhain and Beltaine were considered the most important.
November 1st – Samhain – the beginning of the new year;
February 1st – Imbolg or Imbolc, represents the beginning of Spring . It means “in the belly” and signifies an end to the dark, hungry days of winter;
May 1st – Beltaine – The stirrings of life heard at Imbolg have matured into the vibrant song of summer;
August 1st – Lughnasadh – the first day of autumn and the beginning of the harvest.
The Return of the Sun…
Beltaine (pronounced bel-TEN-ya or bel-CHEN-ya) is an anglicization of the Irish “Bealtaine” or the Scottish “Bealtuinn.” While “tene” clearly means “fire,” nobody really knows whether Bel refers to Belenus, a pastoral god of the Gauls, or is from “bel,” simply meaning “brilliant.” It might even derive from “bil tene” or “lucky fire” because to jump between two Beltane fires was sure to bring good fortune, health to your livestock, and prosperity.
Having doused their hearth fires at sundown on April 30th, all Celtic households would thread their way up the hillsides, driving their livestock and pets before them, to reach the location of the twin holy fires burning brightly. These twin fires represented the eyes of the Goddess as she returned from her long winter sleep and beheld her subjects before her and her lands spread far and wide, awakening from the long dark months.
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!”
And for most, May 1st is that great holiday of flowers, Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity. It is no wonder that, as recently as 1977, Ian Anderson could pen the following lyrics for his art-rock band Jethro Tull:
”For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Modern-day Beltaine Suggestions…
Arise at dawn and wash in the morning dew: the woman who washes her face in it will be beautiful; the man who washes his hands will be skilled with knots and nets.
If you live near water, make a garland or tussey mussey (posey) of spring flowers and cast it into stream, lake or river to bless the water spirits.
Prepare a May basket by filling it with flowers and goodwill, then give it to one in need of caring, such as a shut-in or elderly friend.
Beltaine is one of the three “spirit-nights” of the year when the faeries can be seen. At dusk, twist a rowan sprig into a ring and look through it, and you may see them looking back at you!
The dreams and hopes of the ancient ones were captured in the celebrations of Beltaine, and their rites of passage and fecundity have echoed down the centuries to blossom in those of us with Celtic blood and Celtic hearts. We would do well to embrace and cherish the renewal of life that Spring brings to our spirits as we shake off the chill of Winter’s passage, and rejoice once more with the fires in our souls.