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(1st May)

BELTANE is one of the eight annual holidays, referred to as 'Sabbats', which are observed as part of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. There are four Greater Sabbats: Samhain (31st October), Imbolc (2nd February), Beltane (1st May) and Lughnasadh/Lammas (1st August); and four Lesser Sabbats: Yule/Winter Solstice (21st December), Ostara/Spring Equinox (20th March), Litha/Summer Solstice (21st June) and Mabon/Autumn Equinox (22nd September). Solstices occur when the Sun enters Capricorn and Cancer; Equinoxes when the Sun enters Aries and Libra.

BELTANE is a cross-quarter day, marking the mid-point in the Sun's progress between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice. Standing at the threshold of Summer, it is a festival of fun and merriment, a time of revelry, feasting and Maypole dancing. Beltane celebrates the woodland union of The God and Goddess and is a time of rejoicing in the Earth's fertility. Traditionally, the Maypole was the trunk of a fir tree with side branches removed - an ancient phallic symbol of fertility and the God aspect. The earth that supports the Maypole represents The Goddess. Beltane is the festival of Belenos and is marked by the lighting of huge bonfires. These fires were once kindled from Tein-Eigin, the 'Need Fire', which was generated by friction from a rotating wheel. The lighting of a community Beltane fire from which individual hearth fires are then relit is still observed in modern times. Early Gaelic sources (10th Century) state that the Druids would create a 'Need Fire' on top of a hill and drive the village's cattle through to purify and bring luck Eadar da theine Bhealltainn in Scottish Gaelic, 'between two fires of Beltane'. The word Beltane derives directly from the Old Irish 'Beltene' meaning 'Bright Fire'.


Beltane Fire Festival Red Man by SixSigma 30 April 2006

The beauty of May is in the abundance of floral colour and air sweet with the honeyed fragrance of blossom. The floral display of May is honoured by calling this Full Moon the 'Flower Moon'. This is also the time to remember the ancient fertility figure of the Green Man; emerging from his woodland home to celebrate in revelries with the common folk. He brings abundance back to nature after Winter's rest. A branch of Rowan, or Hawthorn in bloom (more commonly known as 'May Bush') was often used as May Bough to hang at windows and doors and was also used a fuel for the bonfire, and the practice of decorating the May Bough with flowers, ribbons and garlands has survived in some rural parts of Britain, Canada and the USA.

In ancient times, Beltane held a much darker influence as a time of sacrifice (both animal and human); made to placate the gods of regeneration and growth. Beltane stands on the threshold of Summer as Samhain stands on the threshold of Winter - one with its hopes of a good Summer yield and its fears of a bad harvest, drought and poor breeding of livestock; the other with fears of a long, cold Winter and possible starvation - both times of uncertainty. It was at Beltane that Caesar recorded the huge wicker figures filled with sacrifices that were burned as offerings to the gods. Bread (bannock) was cooked on a griddle and a portion was naturally or deliberately blackened or scorched. The bread was divided and placed in a bag or bonnet - each man then picking a piece. The man holding the marked bread was 'The Devoted One' and in ancient times was sacrificed; often by fire, air and water. (The body of Lindow Man found preserved in a peat bog is thought by some to have been sacrificed at Beltane. In many parts of the Highlands, the young folk of the district would meet on the moors on 1st May, cutting a circular trench in the green sod large enough to hold the whole company. They kindled a fire, made a 'custard' of eggs and milk and a single oatcake, which they toasted in the embers against a stone. After sharing the custard, the oatcake was divided into as many portions as there were people and one portion was daubed with charcoal. These were placed in a bonnet together, and each one, blindfolded, chose a portion. The bonnet holder was entitled to the last piece. Whoever drew the blackened piece was compelled to leap three times over the flames. Today in ritual 'The Devoted One' is only symbolically killed, but for the duration of the ceremony he is indeed most certainly 'dead'!

Dancing Jack in the Green, Hastings - photo Debbie, White Witch

Another May Day festivity is the Rochester Sweeps Festival which celebrates the traditional holiday that chimney sweeps used to enjoy on 1 May. It was the one time of the year when the sweeps could put away their tools and have some fun. A colourful mix of music, dancing and entertainment, traditional dances and songs handed down from generation to generation are still enacted.

The oldest May Day celebration still taking place today is the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss celebration in Cornwall. Its roots date back to the 14th century. Every May Day thousands of people come to see the two famous Hobby Horses, the Old Oss and the Blue Ribbon Oss. Celebrations in Padstow officially start the night before at midnight, when a groups of 'Mayers' meet outside the Golden Lion Inn to serenade the owner with their Night Song:

Rise up, Mr. Rickard, and joy to you betide,
For summer is a-come in today;
And bright is your bride, that lays down by your side
In the merry morning of May.

It is at celebrations such as these that old traditions of Morris Men, Jack-in-the-Green, May Queens, Tatter-jackets, 'Obby 'Osses and Garland Dancers are kept alive - although many revellers are not aware they are taking part in thoroughly Pagan celebrations of the Old Religion, we are certain The Lady and The Lord don't mind who is paying them worship! Long may these traditions remain.


Padstow May Day Dance Song

Unite and unite let us all unite,
For summer is acome unto day,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May.

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  • Gods and Goddesses of Beltane: Belenos, Beli, Balour, Taranis, Green Man, Spring Maiden, May Queen.
  • Beltane Incense: Mulberry.
  • Candle Colours: Yellow and White.
  • Ritual Colours: Green and Yellow.
  • Organic Materials: May blossom, Rowan twigs, Hawthorn twigs (preferably in blossom), young Oak leaves, a crown made of any flowering plant.
  • Recipe for Beltane Oatcakes:
  • 4 oz fine oatmeal, pinch of salt, 1/4 tsp. bicarbonate of soda, 1 tsp. melted lard or oil, hot water, oatmeal for rolling out.
  • Mix the oatmeal with the salt and bicarb. Mix in the fat and enough hot water to make a stiff paste. Knead and roll out thinly into a large circle. Cut into portions or rounds. Cook in a heavy-bottomed frying pan or griddle until oatcakes begin to curl at edges. Turn and cook on other side. If being used in ritual, slightly burn one of the cakes. Oatcakes can also be served with butter, jam or honey.
  • Beltane Activities
  • Decorate your house (and Altar) with green and yellow, May blossom and young Oak leaves.
  • Prepare a crown of flowers for the May Queen/Maiden.
  • Prepare a crown of greenery and a staff with bells, long ribbons and leaves for the Green Man.
  • Fashion a small doll from twigs or grass and release the figure into a body of water. By doing so you give thanks for the bounty Mother Earth returns to us.
  • Make a pilgrimage to a well, spring or body of water and make offerings of flowers (or the small doll above).
  • Go Bluebell hunting in the forests and woods and marvel at Mother Earth's carpet of wonder (note:  the English Bluebell is protected and must not be picked!!!)
  • Make an equal-armed cross from Rowan twigs to protect your home.
  • Kindle a bonfire, make and cook your own oatcakes.
  • Create your own Maypole, crown with a circlet of young leaves, fresh May blossom and flowers, decorate with ribbons and bells. DANCE AND ENJOY!

    Native Bluebells Carpet the Land - photo by Debbie, White Wtich

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