Growing up, my family has always had a May Day tradition. It was taught to me and my sisters by our mother, she and her sister learned it from their mother, and I suspect my grandmother was taught it from her mother as well. I am now teaching it to my sons. I didn’t realize it until recently, but this tradition of ours is steeped in Beltane ritual.

In our family, we call May 1st “Dew Day.” According to folklore, the dew on May 1st has magical properties. When we wake in the morning, we do not say a word until we go outside and wash our faces in the fresh dew. This is supposed to bring one year of health and luck; and (especially for young women) a clear complexion.

I can’t find any fixed reference to silence in the morning on May Day. Perhaps it was a concoction by my grandmother for a few extra moments of peace and quiet. Nonetheless, it has become a part of our tradition. As children we used to place notes at our bedsides and on the bathroom mirror to remind ourselves not to talk and risk breaking the spell.

It is interesting to me that preceding generations in my rather conservative family would honor a Beltane ritual. Pagans, they are not. And for them to have chosen a ritual that is closely associated with a celebration of fertility is even more astounding. I wonder if they even knew.

Beltane is celebrated around May 1st, the midway point between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. In ancient times, it marked the arrival of summer with celebrations of new life, rebirth, and fertility. Beltane is celebrated throughout the world and while customs may vary somewhat, much of the ritual and celebration remains the same.

The most popular belief among pagans is that the word Beltane means “bale fire.” Even today bale fires are lit all over Ireland and England on May eve, just as they were in the past. The Beltane fires were huge fires to welcome back the sun for the light half of the year. The smoke and ashes also offered luck, purification, and protection (especially for crops and livestock).

Celebrations include frolicking through the countryside, maypole dancing, leaping over fires to ensure fertility, circling the fire three times (sun-wise) for good luck in the coming year, feasting, music, gathering flowers, and lovers going A-Maying (traditionally, into the woods for a night of passion).

I love that our small family ritual is rooted in such rich history. So tomorrow when we rise, I will silently gather my children and lead them outside to the chilly morning air and the fresh dew. We’ll wash our faces in the grass, breathe in the earthiness of early morning, and wander through the garden welcoming new growth.


Mead said...

Dear Jenny,

Though I'm more of an All Hallows guy myself, I too rejoice in the turning tide of the year, and I love this account of your Beltane traditions. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

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Jenny Wren said...

Thanks, Mead. I love to hear what rituals others are practicing. It's not something that people seem to talk about much.

It's got me thinking about family traditions in general: where they came from, which we choose to continue as adults, and which we decline. For instance, when I was a child Santa Claus always decorated our tree on Christmas Eve after we all went to bed. It was absolutely magical to wake on Christmas morning and see the transformation. However, as an adult with 2 kids who rise early, there is no way in hell I'm staying up that late to trim a tree. We compromised this year and Santa added a bit of tinsel.

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