Celebrating Bealltainn

The following suggestions given here are outlined with the idea of their being incorporated into a coherent ritual framework (for the most part). You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. Over all these suggestions tend to lend themselves to being shared with a group of people, but of course not everyone wants to, or can do that. For those who do want to share, but don’t necessarily have the opportunity to do that with fellow Gaelic Polytheists, you could always try getting your friends or family (household) together to share in the feasting and then make your religious observances in private.

When you celebrate is up to you; you might wish to make your observances on Bealltainn Eve ‘proper,’ or else you might want to wait until the seasonal signs seem right (for example, celebrating once the hawthorn is in bloom). In a group, in particular, it may be more convenient to arrange your joint celebrations on a set date that’s convenient for everyone, however.

Celebrating Bealltainn

  • Freshly churned Bealltainn butterIn the run-up to the eve of Bealltainn, clean and tidy the house so everything is in order. Return any items borrowed and make sure you have food in your cupboards.
  • Decorate the house (or just your shrine area, if you prefer) with seasonally appropriate greenery. Yellow flowers are especially appropriate such as primrose, marigolds, gorse, or buttercups (though please don’t pick wildflowers). Boughs of juniper, elder, ivy, whitethorn or brambles can also be hung up around the house. Note: beliefs surrounding certain woods – especially elder and whitethorn – may vary according to location. In some parts of Ireland, Scotland or Man it is considered unlucky to bring whitethorn or elder into the house at all (in the latter case, this is more common in areas where rowan is common; in areas where it isn’t, elder is often used as a substitute and so there aren’t as many prohibitions against it).
  • A May bough or bush can be put out (or take pride of place somewhere in your home). Decorate the bough/bush with brightly coloured ribbons, streamers, scraps of cloth, flowers, and anything else you might like to add. The bough is sometimes burnt on the evening of Bealltainn (at the ‘close’ of the festival) itself, or sometimes it may be kept for up to a month after the festivities began.
  • You’ll need to plan out a few things in advance – a feast (or a special meal) is traditional so you’ll want to decide what you’re having and make sure you have everything beforehand. Lamb is traditional, though not a necessity. You’ll also want to decide what kind of offerings you’re going to give; if you’re making a bonnach Bealltainn (or several) then you’ll need to make it/them ready for the evening. Caudle can also be made. You’ll also want to make sure you have any candles and other necessary items at the ready.
  • Butter churning is traditional and this can also form part of your offerings. Making butter is a simple process. You can buy small churns specially, but you don’t need specialist equipment. Put cream in a large jar or tub (tightly sealed) and shake it vigorously until the butter forms, or simply whisk the cream until it turns to lumps. If several people are present then everyone can take turns in helping to make the butter (a traditional way of making butter, and one that symbolically helps “share the burden”). A charm can be sung while the cream is being churned. Once the lumps have formed, drain off the buttermilk (a sieve works nicely). You’ll need to “squeeze” the excess liquid out of the butter as well, otherwise the butter won’t keep; if you’re using a sieve, simply use a large spoon to press the excess liquid out. Salt can be added for taste.
  • On Bealltainn eve – if possible – extinguish all lights in the house. It’s traditional to extinguish the central hearth, the source of the home’s heat, on this evening, and this evening alone. A comparable flame today would be the pilot light (if you have one),1 but a symbolic flame like a candle or your fireplace can be used if you prefer (or if necessary).
  • Once that’s done, you can light a bonfire (or two bonfires, close to each other) using lucky woods such alder, birch, ash, or oak. Avoid crossed woods such as blackthorn at all costs. If you want to be really traditional you can light this using friction alone (the need-fire, or teine éigin). Add a few sticks of rowan (or other lucky wood with protective properties, and/or perhaps juniper) to the bonfire.
  • If you can’t light a bonfire and need to make your celebrations indoors then you can use candles as an alternative.
  • The bulk of your observances can be centred around the bonfire or, if you’re doing it all inside, around the central hearth or your shrine.
  • Once the fire is lit – with a blessing – offerings and prayers can be made. You might wish to follow or adapt Gaol Naofa’s An Fheile Bheag ritual, for example, which is based on a description of a Bealltainn celebration.
  • A Bealltainn blessing, adapted or inspired by this one, for example, can be included.
  • While the bonnach Bealltainn can be consumed – with or without a caudle drink, sheep’s cheese and/or freshly churned butter with lamb – you should also make at least one to set aside as a special offering. It’s traditional to break a piece of the bannock off and throw it over your shoulder, offering it to the local spirits and asking them for protection from various dangers. The traditional format goes: “‘This I give to thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep’; and so on.” Then further knobs of the bannock are broken off and thrown over the shoulder while the pieces are offered to dangerous being or “noxious animals,” saying (for example): “This I give to thee, O Fox! Spare thou my lambs; this to thee, O hooded Crow! this, O Eagle!” These offerings can be adapted to our own circumstances, concentrating on our loved ones and pets if we don’t have livestock to concern ourselves with, etc. Make an offering of caudle (or milk, for example) to finish off.
  • After this, it’s time for feasting around the bonfire, or around your symbolic representation. Feast and be merry! Tell stories, sing songs, dance, have fun.
  • When you’re ready, take a flame from the bonfire (or your symbolic representation) and bring it into the house. Use it to relight your central flame (e.g. a candle on your shrine, your hearth, or your pilot light). As you do so, you may say a kindling prayer for blessing.
  • Once the flames have died down, the bonfire can be jumped over to ensure protection and good luck in the coming year etc. If using candles, place it (or them) on the floor for jumping over. Alternatively, if two bonfires have been lit then everyone can walk between them for the saining; pets can be included in this, if they can be involved safely. Everyone can take away some of the ashes to spread over their own property to sain/purify it in the coming year as well.
  • Bealltainn is traditionally the only time of the year (according to Scottish belief and customs) when rowan can be cut. This is a good time to harvest some wood for the coming year, then. Make sure you harvest the wood from a tree that seems willing (if you get bad vibes as you approach the tree, go somewhere else), and leave an offering of thanks when you’re done. You’ll want to collect enough to last you the coming year. You can safely harvest from the evening through to the next day.
  • Make crosses of rowan tied with red thread, or rowan wands and place above the threshold of the house (or windows in a particular room – over time you could make one for each room of the house) for protection in the coming year. Placing a cross or wand in the attic is said to protect against fire. A small cross can be made and carried to ensure safe journeys; a piece of rowan in the midden (garbage/bin) ensures protection from witches or malignant spirits. Keep the charms in place, and when you come to replace them the old bits of rowan can be burnt on the bonfire/hearth (if possible). You can make these charms during your evening celebrations, or else make and hang them up during the following day.
  • After midnight (or first thing on Bealltainn morning) collect the “skim” of the tap. I.e. collect some water from the tap and keep it for the following year. This water is said to contain the “cream” or “toradh” (essence), which is extremely potent; pouring (or flushing!) it away is tantamount to symbolically flushing away your luck and prosperity, so it should be preserved. It can be used in saining and healing rites, for example, and you can sain the house with some of the water as soon as you’ve collected it, or perform your saining during the next day.
  • Before sunrise on Bealltainn morning go out and collect morning dew from grass or corn. This dew can be kept and stored in sunny place until it is needed for healing. It’s said to be particularly effective for skin complaints or headaches; washing your face in it is meant to preserve youthful looks (or if you’re brave, roll naked in the dewy grass for an all over effect!), and washing your hands in it ensures suppleness. You are supposed to let the dew dry naturally on your skin.

See also: Entries tagged with Bealltainn

1 Hopefully it goes without saying that you shouldn’t mess about with things like this if you’re not sure how they work. Or if it’s not your boiler…