The First of May: You Call it May Day; I call it Beltane, a Wiccan Sabbat

International Workers’ Day (also known as May Day) is a celebration of the international labour movement. May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and celebrated unofficially in many other countries.  All around Europe people are celebrating with a day off or a “bank holiday.”

England will celebrate it next Monday — May 6th, here in Portugal we are quaint and still celebrate it on the day itself. In Catholic countries it is also St Joseph’s day, St Joseph is the patron saint of workers and craftsmen.

Before it became an international holiday May Day was celebrated as the start of spring, with many ancient traditions celebrating spring, fertility and growth.

Most Mayday celebrations have their roots in the old earth religions.

May 1st is also Beltane, one of the Wiccan Sabbats and one of the “fire” quarter days. In early Celtic times it marked the start of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth.

Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire, or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire.

Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush; a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe.

Beltane celebrates the height of spring and the flowering of life. The Goddess manifests as the May Queen and Flora. The God emerges as the May King and Jack in the Green. Beltane marks the passage into the growing season, the immediate rousing of the earth from her gently awakening slumber, a time when the pleasures of the earth and self are fully awakened. It signals a time when the bounty of the earth will once again be had.

May is a time when flowers bloom, trees are green and life has again returned from the barren landscape of winter, to the hope of bountiful harvests, not too far away, and the light-hearted bliss that only summer can bring.

Beltane marks the handfasting of the Goddess and God; it too marks the reawakening of the earth’s fertility in its fullest. This is the union between the Great Mother and her Young Consort, this coupling brings new life on earth. It is on a Spiritual level, the unifying of the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine to bring forth the third, consciousness. On the physical, it is the union of the Earth and Sun to bring about the fruitfulness of the growing season.

Beltane is the traditional day for handfasting; the ancient Celtic ceremony (temporary or permanent) of betrothal or wedding that dates back to pre-Medieval times and usually involves the tying or binding of the hands of the bride and groom with a cord or ribbon. Such ceremonies are widely practised in the Wiccan religion. The vows taken may be for “a year and a day,” “a lifetime,” “for all of eternity” or “for as long as love shall last.” Whether the ceremony is legal, or a private spiritual commitment, is up to the couple.

We will light our own Beltane fire providing the wind drops and we will be celebrating with a special thanksgiving meal, candles, lots of flowers and blossoms in the house and reread and renew our handfasting vows and give thanks for our blessings.

15 comments

  • What an amazing and rich article, Nicola! Thanks for sharing.

    Now, I’m curious — when in the process of courting Mr P does the “I’m a Wiccan” conversation take place? Straight away? After moving to Portugal?

    Is he a believer as well, or does he go his own way?

  • The I am wiccan conversation took place early on – before we met in person – I still have the nickname “little witch” . We overlap in a lot of areas even though he is catholic by upbringing he is very much a man of the earth and of the seasons.

    • Good to know! How does his family take to your Wiccan ways? SMILE!

      Is it actively discussed or just not mentioned?

      • The jury is out ! Basically those that matter to him most are fully acccepting, the lovely Lara is that way inclined too , his mum although very catholic is also very accepting because she like seeing her son happy GRIN !!! The handfasting answered most peoples questions, assauged fears etc.

  • Lovely post. And I enjoyed reading the comments here. I am curious about the vows – I like the flexibility in them. What would happen if in the beginning of the handfasting you chose to take vows for a life time only to decide a few years later you really should have chosen a shorter time span? I am trying to be funny here but NOT making fun, but I am curious – are there Wiccan counselors who might help a couple through problems, is there a formal un- handfasting ceremony?

    You plans for the celebration sound festive and full of great energy.

  • Gordon Davidescu

    Thank you for the lovely article with the fabulous descriptions. I really got a good feel for what Beltane means :)

  • the next post is about our ceremony and includes the text of the ceremony and the vows we took.

    There are Wiccan counsellors and also a lot of the tradittional marriage counsellors are versed in mulifaith marriages. A lot of people have a civil ceremony to legalise in the eyes of the state , followed by a handfasting to celbrate in their own way. In the USA and Australia in particular there are registered Pagan and Wiccan “marriage” celebrants.

    Yes there are specific seperation rituals and cermonies for those realtionships that do not last.

  • This is all so interesting to me. When I was in Junior high school I became very drawn to the Wiccan “religion”,(maybe someday I will write a post about my experiences with different faiths) I am looking forward to your post about your ceremony. Congratulations. I hope you post picture too!

    • Yes there will be pictures !

      In fact I could probably do a whole post of pictures – but a lot of them are in landscape format and would not be at their best here – might be able to share them on one of my dormant blogs where I can play with the formatting to allow it.

      • Perhaps if you just resized them? Or just cropped them? I don’t know – I’m still learning all this too. By the time I learn it all and can just click and drop – that will be obsolete…

      • Landscape format is no problem here! We’d love to have a bunch of articles from you with landscape images. Portrait works better online in general, but landscape is how most of the images in the real world are made. SMILE!

  • Emily Windram

    I just learned a little about Beltane in my Shakespeare class today, although without as much detail! I’m really intrigued by the idea of handfasting and the literal binding of the couples through their hands. It seems much more intimate than the processes of most weddings.

    • it is much more personal and intimate – you can chose your ribbons, most colours have a special significance , we also added symbols which had special meanings to us as well. You really can go with the feel of what you as a couple want,

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