What Is Beltane? And What Should I Cook for It?
Beltane, also known as Beltain, is the Celtic festival that marks the beginning of summer. This ancient tradition isn't as popular today as it was centuries ago, but it's still celebrated by many pagans worldwide and by citizens across the British Isles and Ireland, where it's often referred to as Gaelic May Day.
If you're curious about the ancient fire festival, keep reading to learn more. We'll explore where Beltane originated, how it's celebrated today, and, most importantly, what foods to make for Beltane.
What Is Beltane?
Beltane, a name that potentially originated in the common Celtic words meaning "bright fire" and "white" or "shining," began in Gaelic communities across northwestern Europe. The date falls right in between the spring equinox and summer solstice, highlighting the beginning of summertime and livestock being moved to summer fields.
Beltane also has a focus on fertility and protection, emphasizing the potential for new life as the year's major growing season arrives and safeguarding the crops that are produced.
The celebration is considered a fire festival, often featuring a large bonfire at the centerpiece in modern festivities. However, sometimes a small torch or candle are used instead for areas where a bonfire isn't possible.
Ancient Beltane tradition required two large bonfires. Cattle would be driven between them for a cleansing ceremony. Some say this was viewed as a way to bless the cattle before releasing them into the summer pastures to graze. In Ireland particularly, it was considered a protection against the aos sí (faeries) stealing milk from livestock or spoiling the dairy products. This was done alongside regional rituals to protect crops and individuals in the upcoming season.
When Is Beltane?
Beltane is always celebrated on May 1. This aligns with the more commonly celebrated May Day holiday.
What to Eat for Beltane
Beltane festivals, both in ancient times and today, are commonly accompanied by a large feast. Traditional Beltane celebrations would set aside some food and drink for the aos sí as a nod of respect.
Livestock, like cows and goats, were commonly featured during Beltane festivities, which means they'd act as a perfect main course for your feast. Ideally, make a dish that can be grilled over the edge of your bonfire, such as Mom's Beef Shish Kabobs, or even slow roast a goat leg for a unique main.
Since butter and milk are protected during Beltane ritual, try serving up side dishes highlighting them. Whip up a batch of fresh butter or garlic butter for spreading on breads. End the evening with a glass of honey- and spice-infused warm milk for a sweet treat. Just don't forget to pour a little milk on the ground to appease the aos sí.
Bannock, a Scottish oat cake, is a popular dish for Beltane. Legend states that if you eat one on Beltane morning, you're guaranteed an abundance of crops and livestocks. The traditional way to make these is over fire embers with stones on top, but our handy modern recipe for bannock simply utilizes the oven.
Beltane is focused on fire and heat, so why not translate that onto your plate too? Serve up some spicy dishes to keep your feast interesting. Maybe start the festivities with some hot stuffed mushrooms, or mix a dollop of fiery pepper spread into your favorite dip recipe.
You can't have a Beltane feast without some libations. A great choice that's a nod to ancient Celts is mead. You can find it in the wine aisle of well-stocked grocery stores. Or mix up a pitcher of drinks using one of our best summertime cocktail recipes, since Beltane marks the beginning of the season.