With its focus on fun and frivolity, it's no wonder Beltane is one of the most festive Sabbats of the year for many modern Pagans. Held each year on or around May 1st, Beltane is a celebration of vitality, fertility, strength, and growth reflecting a blending of many traditions. It gets its name from the pre-Christian Celtic Bealtaine, which marked the start of the summer season. Rituals to ensure prosperity, health, fertility, and the well-being of one's livestock and other assets were enacted, as this was a time to tune in to Nature's tides of strength, growth, and abundance.
One interesting Beltane tradition that's still practiced in many places is the decorating of the May Bush, or May Tree. Also called a Fairy Tree or Wishing Tree, the May Bush is typically a small tree or shrub on which people place decorations as well as offerings, prayers, and wishes to the fae and other Nature spirits. Though decorating a tree is something we usually associate with Yule, making your very own May Bush is not only fun, it's also an effective means to make some May Day magick.
Any tree or bush can become the May Bush, but traditionally, Hawthorns are favored as they flower right around the time of Beltane. In Ireland, a Hawthorn growing near a holy well was the ideal May Tree. Water was considered especially sacred at Beltane, and visits to sacred wells in search of healing or other favors were common. One technique used to heal the sick was to dip a piece of the afflicted person's clothing into the well water, then tie the fabric onto a nearby tree, thus transferring the infirmity away from the victim and into the living shrubbery. Over time, this practice was expanded to include wishes for love, fertility, protection, and general good luck. People would hang ribbons or strips of fabric onto the May Tree and make their wishes, in hopes of gaining the favors of the fae who dwelled amidst the flowering green branches.
In England and other English-influenced parts of the United Kingdom, it was traditional to take a large cutting from a Hawthorn or other thorn tree and place it near the home or in a communal area to bring good luck and blessings from the tree spirits. These May Bushes were decked with painted egg shells, colorful ribbons, and wildflowers. Villages would often compete to produce the best community May Bush, but eventually the practice was discouraged and even outlawed in some places due to the lawlessness it inspired, as competing villagers vied to steal or deface the May Bushes of their neighbors.
If you want to make your own May Bush mischief and magick this Beltane, start by selecting the tree you will use. You might choose a Hawthorn or other thorn tree, or simply choose any small tree or bush that stands out to you as special in some way. Some people use fallen limbs to act as the May Bush, relocating them to a place of honor beside the front door or along the outer edges of the yard.
You can decorate your May Bush anyway you like, but take care that the decorations you choose are not harmful to the environment. Pick natural over synthetic materials, and don't tie things onto the tree so tightly that it strangles the branches or restricts growth by preventing new buds from forming. You can use ribbons or small scraps of natural cloth, sea shells, egg shells, flowers, small strips of paper, and even thin scraps of vegetable or fruit peelings to decorate your May Bush. What you choose for decoration should be guided by the location and specifics of the tree. If your May Bush is in a wild area, stick with natural items like feathers, shells, or native flowers, nuts, and berries. Avoid leaving anything non-biodegradable in a natural area, and also avoid leaving anything edible that's not native to the area in which you're leaving it. An orange might seem like a sensible offering, but it could make a wild animal sick from the chemicals and waxes found in the peeling, not to mention potentially changing the animal's food gathering habits. Likewise, if you've made a May Bush by the side of a busy road, don't lure animals into the danger zone by using edibles as decorations. If the May Tree is on your own private property and you live in an urban area with little wildlife activity, you'll have a little more leeway in choosing your decorations as you'll be able to remove them promptly once your ritual is complete. However, it's still best to choose decorations with biodegradability in mind. Synthetic fabrics containing nylon, rayon, or polyester can take decades to centuries to break down. Instead, choose easily biodegradable materials such as hemp, natural linen, organic cotton, or brown paper bags. Simply cut small strips of the material and secure them onto the tree so that they won't blow away in the wind. Please avoid using plastics, even in your own yard, as even the smallest piece of plastic can injure an animal. Many birds, mammals, and aquatic species die each year from choking on plastic or having plastic lodged in their digestive systems. If you don't want to take any chances or you're unsure about what materials are safe to use on your chosen May Bush, you can take an alternative approach and use water-based potions instead of more solid objects like fabric and ribbons. Simply mix some water with a bit of herbs or essential oils that reflect your goals. For instance, you might combine water with rose petals or jasmine oil to represent love, or add some dandelions to a bit of water to create a blend for happiness and friendship. A potion for protection can be made by combining black pepper or sage with water. You can use the herbs in their dried form also, leaving out the water all together.
Once you've chosen your decorations, be they solids or liquids, it's time to decide how you will use them. Will they be decorations only, intended to increase the beauty of your May Tree, or will they be offerings intended to pay tribute to the spirits who dwell amidst the branches? Will your decorations take the form of a magickal charm, a medium through which to convey your wishes, prayers, and intentions to the divine powers that be? If so, what are these wishes, specifically? Take some time to think about why your decorating the May Tree, and the ritual will hold much more power and meaning. Beltane is traditionally considered a great time for protection magick, fertility magick, love magick, and attracting good luck, so if you're looking for some ideas, you might choose to incorporate some of these goals into your May Tree ritual. For protection, write the names of those you want to protect on strips of fabric, paper, or vegetable peelings, then secure these on to the tree. If you prefer, you can "paint" the names on the tree with your potion, instead. You can also add protective symbols such as pentacles or crosses. If your goal is love, consider using symbols of love such as hearts, or colors such as red, pink, white, or purple. For fertility magick, consider incorporating goddess symbols, baby images, or fruit into your design. If good luck is what you're after, simply write your wish along with your lucky number or a drawing of your lucky animal.
You may want to "charge" your decorations before you use them, infusing them with your intentions and emotions so that they'll enjoy an extra boost of magickal power once they're placed on the tree. If you're using solid objects like strips of fabric or paper, a very easy and effective way to infuse them with intention is to simply write your wishes onto them, phrasing your desires not as needs, but as affirmations. For example, instead of writing, "I really need a job," write instead, "I will have a wonderful job that I love." Another way to charge your decorations that works well for potions, also, is to keep them close to your body the day before you decorate the May Bush, placing them into a pocket of your clothing, or sleeping with them beneath your pillow so they can attune with your energetic vibrations. To seal the enchantment, hold each decoration in your hand in turn as you let your intentions and feelings pour into it, envisioning your May Day wishes coming true exactly as you wish. As you arrange your decorations and wishes on the May Bush, think of the nature spirits that dwell in the area and any other divine powers whose aid you'd like to beseech, and ask these entities to heed your call and help you. You might also consider placing offerings to the fae or other spirits on or around your May Bush, as well. Berries and other fruit, nuts, herbs, and vegetables make fine offerings, as does a sprinkling of pure spring water. Again, let the location of your tree guide you towards the most appropriate selections.
Once your decorations and offerings are in place, it's time to make merry around the May Tree. Sing, dance, play a drum, flute, or other musical instrument, or simply sit and smile, thinking of the happy things in life and relishing in your many blessings. As you enjoy your May Tree, think of all the people past and present who honor Nature at this time of year, and see yourself as the integral part of magickal tradition that you are. Beltane is a festival of life and magick, and as a celebrant, you yourself are living magick. For further exploration, you can find out more about Beltane in Llewellyn's Sabbat Essentials series, and discover a multitude of magickal practices from around the world in A Witch's World of Magick.