The Irish name for May Day is Beltane, with "tene" meaning fire and Bel one of the names of the Sun God. It is one of the four great "fire festivals" which marked the turning points of the Celtic year. Beltane, and its counterpart Samhain, divide the year into its two primary seasons, winter (Dark Part) and summer (Light Part). As Samhain is about honoring Death, Beltane, its counter part, is about honoring Life. It is the time when the sun is fully released from his bondage of winter and able to rule over summer and life once again.
Beltane, like Samhain ( Halloween), is a time of "no time" when the veils between the two worlds are at their thinnest. No time is when the two worlds intermingle and unite and the magic abounds! It is the time when the Faeries return from their winter respite, carefree and full of faery mischief and faery delight. On the night before Beltane, in times past, folks would place rowan branches at their windows and doors for protection, many otherworldly occurrences could transpire during this time of "no time".
Traditionally on the Isle of Man, the youngest member of the family gathers primroses on the eve before Beltane and throws the flowers at the door of the home for protection. In Ireland it is believed that food left over from May Eve must not be eaten, but rather buried or left as an offering to the faery instead. Much like the tradition of leaving of whatever is not harvested from the fields on Samhain, food in the time of no time is treated with great care.
To the ancient Northern Celts, Beltane symbolized the beginning of spring, the return of the sun. It's the the time of animals giving birth, seeds sprouting, flowers blooming, and the days getting longer and warmer. It was the time to get outside to revel in and bless Mother Natures fertility.
In the old Celtic times, young people would spend the entire night in the woods "A-Maying," and then "brought in the May" by collecting flowers to wear as wreaths in their hair and to decorate their homes and the village. They would process back into the villages, stopping at each home to leave flowers, and to receive the best of food and drink that the home had to offer. Older married couples were allowed to remove their wedding rings (and the restrictions they imply) for this one night.
John Williamson, in his study, The Oak King, the Holly King, and the Unicorn, writes, "These revelers were messengers of the renewal of vegetation, and they assumed the right to punish the niggardly, because avarice (as opposed to generosity) was dangerous to the community's hope for the abundance of nature. At an important time like the coming of summer, food, the substance of life must be ritually circulated generously within the community in order that the cosmic circuit of life's substance may be kept in motion (trees, flocks, harvests, etc.)."(3) These revelers would bless the fields and flocks of those who were generous and wish ill harvests on those who withheld their bounty.
On this day, cattle and livestock were driven between two sacred bonfires to bless them with good health. The bonfires were an important part of the festival and were lit from sacred fires prepared by Druid Priests using nine sacred woods. Jumping over the fire was a fertility ritual practiced by young couples wishing to have a family.The Bel fire is a sacred fire with healing and purifying powers. The fires further celebrate the return of life, fruitfulness to the earth and the burning away of winter. The ashes of the Beltane fires were smudged on faces and scattered in the fields. Household fires would be extinguished and re-lit with fresh fire from the Bel Fires.
The Maypole was a phallic symbol of male energy entering Mother Earth to fertilize her. The dancers around the Maypole use long ribbons which are wrapped around the pole to symbolize the feminine surrounding the masculine.
The Maypole dance is an important aspect of encouraging the return of fertility to the earth. The pole itself is not only phallic in symbolism but also is the connector of the three worlds. Dancing the Maypole during Beltane is magical experience as it is a conduit of energy, connecting all three worlds at a time when these gateways are more easily penetrable. As people gaily dance around and around the pole holding the brightly colored ribbons, the energy it raises is sent down into the earth's womb, bringing about Her full awakening and fruitfulness.
A Beltane celebration in Glastonbury England
It is customary that trial unions, for a year and a day, occur at this time. More or less these were statements of intent between couples, which were not legally binding. The trial marriages (engagements) typically occurred between a couple before deciding to take a further step into a legally binding union. It seems ancient wisdom understood that one does not really know another until they have lived with them, and when you live together things change and we change, as well. With this understanding unions were entered upon, first as a test period, and then if desired, a further commitment could be taken. It through always knowing that it is only through the choice of both to remain, that the relationship exists favorably.
May, however, according to old folklore is not a favorable time for marriages in the legal and permanent sense. There is reference after reference in the old books of this belief, May is not the month to marry, woe is to had by those who do. I can understand the premise of this folklore, May is the Goddess and God's handfasting month, all honor would be Hers and His.
Water is another important association of Beltane, water is refreshing and rejuvenating, it is also imperative to life. It is said that if you bathe in the dew gathered before dawn on Beltane morn, your beauty will flourish throughout the year. Those who are sprinkled with May dew are insured of health and happiness. There are other folk customs such as drinking from the well before sunrise on Beltane Morn to insure good health and fortune.
If you believe in faeries, Beltane is a good time to leave out food and other treats for them in your garden or yard. How about making a beautiful fairy house for them to reside in? This is a wonderful project to include your children in. Go for a walk in the forest and collect natural things such as moss, pinecones, bark, and twigs and use these to construct and furnish a home for your faeries. Place it in a peaceful spot in your garden or leave it tucked in a cosy spot in the forest.