Beltane marks that the winter’s journey has passed and summer has begun, it is a festival of rapturous gaiety as it joyfully heralds the arrival of summer in her full garb. Flowers are a crucial symbol of Beltane, they signal the victory of Summer over Winter and the blossoming of sensuality in all of nature and the bounty it will bring.
There is a Queen and King of May, typically chosen at the start of the Beltane festival. The May Queen usually wore a crown of fresh flowers. This practice can be drawn back to the roots of Beltane festivities, the union of the Goddess and Her Consort, the joining of earth and sun, the endowment of summer.
As Beltane marks this (wedding) of the Goddess and God, it too marks the reawakening of the earth’s fertility in its fullest. This is the union between the Great Mother and her Young Consort, this coupling brings new life on earth. It is on a Spiritual level, the unifying of the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine. On the physical, it is the union of the Earth and Sun to bring about the fruitfulness of the growing season.
Yellow flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel and marsh marigold were set at doorways and windows. Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows and sometimes they would be made into bouquets and garlands or crosses and fastened to them. They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making. It is likely that such flowers were used because they evoked fire. Similar May Day customs are found across Europe.
The May Bush was popular in parts of Ireland. This was a small tree, typically a thorn tree, that would be decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, and so forth. There were household May Bushes (which would be set outside each house) and communal May Bushes (which would be set in a public spot or paraded around the neighborhood). In some places, it was customary to dance around the May Bush, and at the end of the festivities it was burnt in the bonfire. Thorn trees were seen as special trees and were associated with the sídhe or fairies. The custom of decorating a May Bush was found in many parts of Europe: “The intention of these customs is to bring home to the village, and to each house, the blessings which the Tree Spirit has in its power to bestow.” May Bushes were set outside farmhouses “to encourage and protect the abundance of milk during the summer”.
Some of the flowers and herbs linked to Beltane are:
Hawthorn: As part of May Day celebration, young women rose at dawn to bathe in dew gathered from Hawthorn flowers to ensure their beauty in the coming year. As the old rhyme goes: “The fair maid who, the first of May, Goes to the fields at break of day, And washes in dew from the Hawthorn tree, Will every after handsome be.” It was important for the girls to wear rowan sprigs as they did this. Hawthorne was also used on Mayday by the early Celts. They decorated their barns with branches to ensure an abundant supply of summer milk.
Lilac: To purify a room, stew the flowers about or keep some fresh lilacs in a vase. In Devon and Cornwall they believed that on May Day one should bathe in lilac dew and so become beautiful all year long.
Woodruff: This herb is used to flavor Beltane wine. It is also used to protect, consecrate, and attract money and to bring victory to athletes and warriors.
Honeysuckle: Honeysuckle brought into the house means a wedding will shortly follow. The blossoms are also used in Beltane rituals.
Primroses: Primroses were carried by women to attract love. Milkmaids would wash their faces in milk in which the petals had been infused on Beltane believing it would make their faces glow and attract their beloved during the festivities.
Lily of the Valley: Lily of the valley symbolizes love and fertility so fits right in with Beltane rituals. These flowers are favored by the faeries. Some faeries out gathering dew, stopped to dance in the moon light. They hung their cups on a blade of grass. When dawn came they discovered that they had danced too long and their cups had attached themselves to the grass and were shielded by two large leaves.
Myrtle: Myrtle was held sacred by Aphrodite and Venus. Small branches were woven into wreaths symbolizing love, and often used in marriage ceremonies and is connected to the union of the God and Goddess at Beltane.