Helping children connect with the rhythms of nature has many benefits. Celebrating festivals our ancestors marked, when peoples activities were more closely tied to nature, is an engaging way of doing this. As mentioned in previous posts, 'The Wheel of the Year' is an ancient Celtic calendar based on festivals that celebrated peoples connection with nature - no religion or certain beliefs are needed to celebrate. In the events I run, I try to focus on the history/folklore elements. The key thing is noticing and celebrating nature!
The Wheel of the Year calendar revolves around eight festivals - each signalling a shift in the natural world around us. This post is about how to celebrate Beltane with children. Beltane is the last of the spring festivals on the Wheel of the Year.
It is also the same date as May Day. Although different from May Day in some ways, it’s quite nice to bring the two together when marking the seasonal shift with children. Beltane has Gaelic roots, observed in Ireland and Scotland, and celebrates the peak of spring and the start of summer. It is halfway between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice.
The Beltane celebrated today is often a combination of history and folklore blended, with local twists and also new additions that are inline with the general theme. You can take elements you like to create your own Beltane celebrations, that's what we do. The general themes of Beltane is ‘life’. This includes courtship and fertility, abundance and creativity.
A bit of the past…
The term “Beltane” is derived from the Celtic god named Bel (likely the sun god Belenus) and the Gaelic word “teine” which means fire. Together Beltane means “Bright Fire”. The Celts believed bonfires would cleanse them and help fertility.
In ancient Rome the Festival of Flowers (Floralia) was celebrated in the first few days of May were celebrated as the festival of flowers. Flowers in the hair and people gathered for communal dancing and feasting! In some Pagan traditions, Beltane is also said to mark the battle between the May Queen and the Queen of the Winter. The May Queen arises from her Winter sleep to battle with the Winter Queen. She wins and the earth blossoms and blooms with crops, flowers and trees. Pagan’s also saw the Green Man as the one welcoming the beginning of summer. The Green man was reunited with the May Queen when the earth was most fertile.
Through the pre industrial age in Britain, celebrations and events have often been linked to the agricultural year as this was the key to communities survival. Dancing around bonfires at Beltane was believed by some to help protect the livestock. Therefore bonfires are often associated with Beltane (and in fact many celebrations!) Traditions through the ages have also included Maypole dances, cutting boughs and flowers, hand fasting and other rituals linked to life, growth and protection.
Going ‘A-May-ing’ was a tradition from pre industrial times, where young people went into the woods to find boughs of hawthorn blossom. This was woven into garlands and crowns and young women were said to wash their face in the hawthorn blossom dew as it was meant to enhance beauty and help attract a partner. Rolling in 'May Eve dew' or washing faces in pre-dawn May Day dew for health, luck, beauty was popular in some areas. Water has been associated in other ways -blessing springs, ponds, other sacred waters with flowers, garlands, ribbons, other offerings.
In the 1700s the tradition of ‘Jack in the Green’ emerged; it involved creating a pyramid structure and covering it with greenery that would then be worn over someone who took part in a May Day procession! The Green Man and Jack in the Green are not the same, but both are symbols welcoming summer.
Therefore Beltane today can be celebrated as a combination of all these past ideas coming together and celebrations today differ from place to place. Often in Britain celebrations include a May Queen and the Green Man, Maypole dancing, decorating oneself in greenery, bonfires, lots of drumming, dancing and fun!
Beltane activities to try with children:
Light a fire!
If you can’t have a bonfire, then may be gather around the fire pit or toast a marshmallow over a tea light! Whilst enjoying the warmth, it’s great time to chat about the history of Beltane and the ways people celebrate, and how it could be seen as still important today - perhap decide on your own traditions to mark the occassion.
The origin of Maypoles is uncertain, but they have traditionally been associated with fertility and courtship in pre industrial times- young people were involved in the dances.
If you are fortunate enough to have a local maypole and organised event - then go along and get involved! An alternative is making your own mini maypoles using sticks and ribbons. You could also find a tree and tie some ribbons around and dance around going under each other's ribbons to create a pattern! It doesn’t need to follow a traditional dance with specific moves - just have fun (and take care no one gets stuck in the ribbons!) You can search for some traditional Maypole dancing music on the internet - and off you go!
The ribbons in a Maypole dance represent different things, so that is fun to talk about: Red: strength Blue: healing Green: home or money Yellow: new beginnings, help with a test at school Orange: friendship Pink: self-love Purple or White: spiritual growth
Weaving is a major activity associated with Beltane - the Maypole is a good example! The weaving represents bringing things together to form a 'new and greater whole'.
You could perhaps weave or plait a bracelet using wool, natural fibres such as grass. As you weave/plait - think of positive thoughts and things you’d like to achieve therefore tying your thoughts into the creation. If you make a bracelet, for example, wearing this will remind you of what you'd like to achieve and perhaps give you determination to go ahead! Nordic braiding is a good way to weave with a friend and have fun doing so. Or create a nature weaving board - perfect for smaller ones!
A May Day tradition was leaving gift baskets anonymously for other people. You could make up a basket of lovely things such as baked goods, sweets or flowers collected on a local walk and gift to a neighbour to brighten their day. Or you could get creative and make your own basket or cone to add treats to. A further suggestion could be donating to a local food bank or charity.
Traditionally, crowns were created from hawthorn blossom. However, hawthorn does have thorns and not the most comfortable to wear, so with children you could make a nature crown from any non sharp growth such as willow and weave in some blossoms, including hawthorn blossom. Wear your headdress of greenery and blossoms to honour the new life that is plentiful in nature at this time!
Beltane is the perfect time to go and celebrate a tree, especially Hawthorn, Birch and Rowan. Spend time looking at it and appreciating it - thinking what you like about it and what it means to you and how it makes you feel. You can hang ribbons from the tree to represent a wish you’d like to come true - often a wish of healing, something you’d like solving/improving was what was asked for. Some believed if you tie the wish to the hawthorn tree the fairies would take it away and the wish would come true (see below for fairy links to Beltane).
Fairies are sometimes linked to Beltane as it was believed the Hawthorn tree is the home of fairies, and it was considered bad luck to cut down a Hawthorn tree. Celts believed if you found Hawthorn, Oak and sh together then the fairies were nearby! Therefore, any fairy related activities are perfect for Beltane. May be create a peg doll fairy or a fairy home in your garden or the local woods using natural materials you find.
Plants symbolise growth and new life. Therefore any planting or gardening with children is a perfect way to mark Beltane. Also learning about plant life cycles or pollinators fits perfectly too.
Make and play the drums
Beltane and Mayday was a time of dancing and drumming. You could set children the challenge of making drums from things they find in nature, and have your own dances and make up songs. You could find a stick and try tapping it on things whilst out on a walk, or perhaps just get some pans or upturned buckets and beat them for fun!
Make herbal Tea
Make your own floral tea and drink in some of the flower magic that is so potent at this time of year. You can make a simple tea using hawthorn blossom. Just pick a few blossoms, add to a cup and pour over boiling water. Leave to infuse for a couple of minutes. You can then add a bit of honey to your taste, or leave as it is.
There are lots of foods you can cook up to mark Beltane. As Beltane is focused on fire and heat, you could make something spicy! Otherwise, using wild greens or anything using edible flowers is perfect as a celebration of this time. See our Foraging card ID packs for more ideas of what to forage and check out our creations and recipes on Instagram.
Just a selection of Beltane food ideas include:
Dandelion and lemon shortbread
Nettle and lemon cakes
Nettle, dandelion leaf and Garlic Mustard pancakes
Wild garlic/garlic mustard scones
Dandelion jam thumb print biscuits
Enjoy your Beltane celebration...
We hope you enjoy the ideas here of way to celebrate Beltane with children. We'd love to hear things you get up to and/or hear your own ideas for how to celebrate. You can contact us via social media or at Catkinandco@gmail.com
You can find out more about our Foraging Cards here and see more explamples of our foraging creations for children on our Instagram. Our Wheel of the Year cards and activity booklet are in production and we have the amazing Ellie Lewis Illustrator on board with her awesome art work - watch this space!