During February, the month of love, I think about the myths and legends of the ancient Celts, full of romance and fantasy. With their belief in rebirth and the next life, they truly sought everlasting romance.
The Celts quest for love left us with some quaint and endearing traditions. At the Celtic harvest festival of Lughnassadh (LOO-nahs-ah), young men and women paired off to pick bilberries and didn’t return until nightfall. This included the sweet custom of boys threading the berries into bracelets for the girls to wear that day. Another important festival for the ancient Celts was Beltaine (bell-tayn), which in modern times we call May Day. The May Queen led the Beltane procession with her ritual courtship of the Green Man. These symbolic marriages of the god and goddess, in the form of King and Queen of the May, were mirrored in human courtship. One of the most popular May Day traditions was to set a basket full of spring flowers or other small gifts at a neighbor’s house without them seeing you. If you got caught, they would chase and then kiss you.
Courtships for the ancient Celts would often begin at Beltaine and the marriages would be held at Samhain (Sah-van), which in modern times we call Halloween. Samhain, as the beginning of the New Year, was the main season of weddings for the ancient Celts. A tradition that survived in Wales, in Montgomeryshire, was on Samhain they made a mash of nine ingredients: potatoes, carrots, turnips, peas, parsnips, leeks, pepper, salt and new milk. A wedding ring was hidden in the mash. Teenage girls dug into the mash with wooden spoons, anxious to learn their fate, for the one who found the ring would be the first one married. The way it was done in Carmarthenshire, was that on Samhain, nine girls made a pancake together, containing nine ingredients, divided it among themselves, and ate it. Before dawn, each girl would have a vision of her future husband.
Moving forward, up to the 16th century, we find one of the most interesting Welsh customs, loving spoons. Celtic handmade love spoons were carved from one piece of wood with symbols on the stem, which had various meaning, from two hearts “We love each other” to an intricate knot meaning “together, forever.” A farmer might carve a vine with flowers on the stem which would mean “love grows.” A sailor might carve an anchor which would mean “steadfast love.” The spoon was the main eating utensil of the day, so by giving a lady a spoon the man was also saying I can provide for you, you won’t go hungry. Love spoons were like engagement rings, if the lady accepted the spoon, she accepted the proposed marriage.
Another quaint courtship custom which began in the 16th and 17th century was bundling. On long, dark, cold winter nights, courting couples were encouraged to share a bed - but they were fully clothed and the boy or girl was sewn into a "bundling bag," a linen sheet that would bind, confine, and conceal the legs, and consequently, private parts of the body. By the late 1600s, Wales's supposedly relaxed sexual morals had become the brunt of English jokes, with the scarcity of Welsh virgins the tired old punch line. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English historians blamed the wayward Welsh for the bundling custom. Though bundling was a perfectly innocent courting ritual. A visitor to Wales reported that female servants were so fond of bundling, they refused to work unless their lovers were permitted to share their beds.
With this romp through the ages, from bilberries to bundling, romance was as important in ancient times as it is today. For as the ancient Celts firmly believed . . . love is timeless.
BIO: Cornelia Amiri draws on her love of history and fifteen years of research on the ancient Celts, to write tales of long swords, hot heroes, and warrior women. Ms. Amiri is the author of eight Celtic Romance books.