Last updated on April 25, 2017
Also referred to as Celtic May Day, May 1st marks the Fire Festival of Beltane. It officially begins at moonrise of May Day Eve and marks the beginning of the third quarter or second half of the ancient Celtic year for the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere it is celebrated on November 1st.
Beltane celebrates the start of summer and the pasturing season since ancient times and is a time of fertility related to harvests. In various Pagan traditions, this is a holiday of union both between the Goddess or the Lady of the Land and the God or Horned God and also between men and women. Handfastings (Pagan marriages) are traditionally held at this time.
Historical Origins of Beltane
For thousands of years, Beltane was an early pastoral festival related to the beginning of summer and the first turning of herds out to wild pasture. Of great importance to ancient Celtic herdsman who were mainly a pastoral people, Beltane celebrations centred on the protection of herds.
Rituals incorporated the symbolic use of fire to protect ancient peoples and their herds from harm, both natural and supernatural. Beltane may refer to the “fires of Bel,” in honour of the Celtic sun god, Belenus. Certain trees are associated with May Day, such as the Ash, Oak and Hawthorn.
For later early farming communities where the success of crops over the summer to come was paramount, May Day rituals promoting crop fertility took a prominent place during Beltane celebrations to promote a bountiful harvest.
Fertility rites were a large part of the celebration tradition and it was later known as the time of year for blessings over the union of couples. Flowers, blessings, dancing and celebration, and the asking for donations for the festivities were incorporated into the joining ceremonies.
The Welsh goddess Creiddylad, Goddess of summer flowers and love, often called the May Queen, is connected with Beltane. In May, the Greeks celebrated the Plynteria in honour of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and battle.
In the Roman tradition, the first day of May was spent paying tribute to their Lares, the gods of their household. They also celebrated the Floralia, or festival of flowers, which consisted of three days of unbridled sexual activity along with plays, songs, and dances where participants wore flowers in their hair much like May Day celebrants later on. Beans were scattered around at the end of the festivities to ensure fertility.
In Norse traditions, May 6th is the day of Eyvind Kelda, or Eyvind Kelve. A Norwegian martyr, Eyvind Kelda was tortured and drowned after refusing to give up his Pagan beliefs. Tribute to the sun goddess is held a week later and marks the beginning of ten straight weeks without darkness.
Like many Pagan festivals, in an effort to woo stubborn locals to their new religion, the early Christian church took over the Beltane tradition and converted it to the celebration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Observances were held inside the church that included decorations with flowers as offerings and then a procession afterward to the fields or hills where the priest would light a fire and tied the old Pagan and newer Christian traditions together.
The goal of many Celtic Beltane rituals was to appease nature spirits or fairies, which are equated with the remnants of the Pagan gods and nature energies. They were thought to be particularly active at this time of year when it was believed that the veil between the human and supernatural worlds is at its thinnest.
Fire continued to be a prominent component of all May Day traditions, with fire the protective element and mirroring the return of the sun that brings growth and life. In Ireland, the fires of Tara were the first ones lit every year at Beltane, and all other fires were lit with a flame that came from Tara.
Yellow was an important colour during Beltane celebrations, as it was likely equated with the sun or fire. Doors, windows, byres and even the cattle themselves were decorated with yellow May flowers. In parts of Ireland, people would decorate a thorn bush, called a May Bush, with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited. Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness and was collected in the early morning prior to celebrations.
Cattle were driven between the Belfires to protect them from ills as their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. People and their cattle would walk around the celebration bonfire, or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. Contact with the fire was interpreted as symbolic contact with the sun.
In early Celtic times, household fires were doused ahead of community celebrations. Druids then kindled the Beltane fires with specific incantations and all home fires were then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. With the house fire representing the luck of the household, a rowan branch was hung over the house fire on May Day to preserve the fire itself from bewitchment.
The early pre-Christian entity of the Green Man is strongly related to Cernunnos the archetypal horned god. Found in the mythology of Great Britain and other parts of Europe, the Green Man or Lord of the Forest, is also associated with the month of May. In some parts of England, a Green Man covered in leaves and shrubbery was carried through town in a wicker cage to celebrate the beginning of summer.
May Poles were the focal point of old English village rituals. Many people arose at dawn to gather flowers and green branches to decorate homes and the village Maypoles. The May Queen (and often King) was chosen from among the young people who sang while they went door-to-door soliciting donations for the celebration in return for the “Blessing of May”.
On the Isle of Man, the May Queen and the Queen of Winter would battle each other in a symbolic struggle of summer overtaking winter. With a band of supporters, the two companies would battle for victory and if the May Queen was captured, she would be ransomed before her followers could get her back.
In parts of France, jilted youth would lie in a field on May Day and pretend to sleep until a village girl willing to marry him woke him with a kiss. He was known as the “betrothed of May”. The pair would then announce their engagement while they led the festival dance.
Beltane celebrations had largely died-out by the 20th century, though some of its customs did survive into the modern era in some places and many have been brought back in revival in others as a cultural event. Since the latter 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Beltane, or something based on it, as a religious holiday. Beltane is one of four major sabbats, along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh.
Modern Pagans celebrate Beltane much like their ancestors did. Many of the old traditions such as decorating with flowers, the braiding of hair to honour the union of man and woman and Goddess and God, decorating and circling the Maypole for fertility, and jumping the Beltane fire for luck are part of the festivities. Lighting of the traditional fire is generally done with a degree of ceremony. For many contemporary Pagans, Beltane is a time for planting and sowing of seeds in flower and herb gardens.
The May Pole may be carried to the celebration place amid a procession and the ribbons that decorate it are woven by the participants as they dance. The May Queen and often King are chosen and solicit offerings in return for blessings of May. In some places, the Green Man is processed to the celebration place. The colours green and yellow mark the day and incense of lilac and frankincense are associated with modern observances.
Couples may announce their intentions to Handfast during the celebration that is then presided over by a Druid priest or Wiccan priestess with the May Queen and King paying witness to bless their union.
Traditional wedding ceremonies contain many of the ancient customs of May Day and Beltane celebrations and Handfastings. A male and female witness for the bride and groom echoes the joining Goddess and God blessing the union. Collecting donations during wedding showers or in the wedding envelope box, the decoration with flowers and ribbons and catching the bouquet indicating who announces the next intention to marry are all old traditions brought into modern times. Early summer, particularly the beginning of May, is still the most popular time for contemporary couples to wed.