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Today’s Beltane celebrations draw from various traditions across the pagan landscape of Europe. And while bonfires are definitely a big part of most rituals, Wiccan and other Pagan observances don’t necessarily borrow as heavily from Celtic lore at Beltane as they do at Imbolc or Samhain.
More typically, the public celebrations incorporate traditions from Germanic cultures—especially dancing around the Maypole. This is the very tall, circular pole made ideally from wood that features in many May Day festivities, both Pagan and secular alike. At the top of the pole hang ribbons of various colors, and the participants each hold one ribbon as they circle the pole in an interweaving dance, until the length of it is decorated.
This practice is rooted in customs found in England, where the cross-quarter day is known as May Day. The Maypole would be erected in the center of the village, or in a nearby field, and decorated with flowers and branches brought in from the fields, gardens and forests. The villagers would rise at dawn to gather these symbols of summer, and used them to decorate their homes and their bodies as well. Women would braid flowers into their hair, and both men and women—especially those who
were young and unmarried—put extra effort into grooming themselves for the big day.
It was traditionally young people who did the dancing around the Maypole, and any woman who wanted to conceive a child was sure to be among them. In the earliest times, the dancing would have been a looser, simpler affair. The more intricately involved dance with the entwining ribbons came about relatively recently, in the 19th century.
Wiccans and other Pagans recognize the pole itself as a supremely phallic symbol, representing the God at the height of his powers. The garlands and greenery symbolize the Goddess and her fertility. As the dancers come together, the ribbons gradually encircle the pole until it is symbolically wrapped in the womb of the Earth. In this way, the union between the divine pair is enacted by the whole community.
This association with phallic symbolism is a somewhat recent development, however. Historians believe that the Maypole originated with fertility rituals of ancient Germanic tribes, who would at one time have been dancing around a young living tree as opposed to a cut pole. The tradition evolved over the centuries after being brought to England, where in the 17th century a mistaken association was made between the Maypole and the bawdier customs of ancient Rome. The phallic symbolism has been part of the lore of May Day ever since, especially among Witches.
Covens have bonfires when possible, often lighting a candle first to represent the ‘old fire’ of the past seasons. The candle is extinguished, and the bonfire ushers in the ‘new fire’—the new energies of the coming year. These energies are typically masculine, but there is also a focus on the cauldron as a symbol of the Goddess. The gender polarity of Wicca is especially evident at Beltane, and the sexual union of the God and Goddess is symbolically enacted through the joining of the athame with the chalice. Literal coupling—or the Great Rite—is also practiced, though not as commonly. It should be pointed out that as Wicca becomes more expansive, some traditions are less focused on gender polarity in order to accommodate the perspectives of gay and transgender people.
The rich lore surrounding Beltane makes for an abundance of ways to celebrate this Sabbat. A fire is appropriate, whether it’s an outdoor bonfire, a small fire in a cauldron or heat resistant bowl, or a host of lit candles. Decorate your altar and your home with green branches and flowers gathered in the early morning, and fill a cauldron or large bowl with water and float fresh blossom petals on top. It’s a good time for beauty rituals, so concoct a facial scrub or mask with dried herbs and fresh water from a stream or spring, or braid your hair to represent the coming together of the Goddess and the God. Make an offering of nuts, berries and fruit for the faeries and leave it under a tree in your yard or in the woods. Tie colored ribbons to young tree branches to make wishes for the coming season. Spend some time with your lover outdoors or work magic to bring a lover into your life. Above all, enjoy the warmth in the air and the accelerating growth of the natural world!