If summer has to come, with its blazing heat and blasts of air that feel like you opened the oven door, then we may as well celebrate with Beltane, yes? We’ve all heard the silly chant, “Hooray, hooray, it’s the First of May! Outdoor fucking begins today!” But maybe not as many people know where that originated. The first of May is properly called Beltane, at least in some traditions, and it is ancient. Ancient things are cool. We should learn more about them, especially when so much of what we think we know is nonsense. We can start here.
Beltane originated from the Celtic tradition of dividing the year into two halves: the winter, which began the new year at November 1 with the Samhain holiday; and summer, which was marked on May 1 by the Beltane holiday (Britannica, para. 2). It was a fertility festival often observed with a ritual of driving cattle between two bonfires. This was to protect them against disease before being turned out to their summer pastures. This practice is not as silly as it may seem to our modern sensibilities. In an age before the discovery and widespread use of antibiotics, vaccines, and antiparasitic drugs, running cattle through fire would have been one way to get rid of lice, fleas, and other disease-causing parasites. The humans, too, passed through the bonfires, more often circling them or jumping over them to ensure fertility. Torches were also carried around the perimeters of homes and towns to purify boundaries and to check the condition of fences and walls.
Feasting was also a component of Beltane celebrations. It was a pastoral, planting festival, so celebrating the bounty of a good bounty was a vital component of the holiday. Eating is a high priority for me as well, so I thoroughly approve of this tradition! Through food, people connect with each other and with the riches of the earth. In earlier times, it was customary to make a caudle as part of the holiday meal. Today, bannocks are more standard, as well as fruit or spice breads. Water is a primary component of Beltane as well, as it is life-giving to the harvest and to all creatures. It is likely from this notion that the tradition of visiting holy wells with offerings began.
The most well known aspects of Beltane are the Maypole and orgies. The Maypole is a remnant of the fertility festival, since the Maypole is a remarkably phallic symbol. Children dancing around the Maypole (boys going clockwise, girls counterclockwise) and weaving ribbons intricately around the staff gave an indication of how the bounty of the year would play out. The more perfect and intricate the weave of ribbons, the greater the bounty. Dancing about the Maypole was also a part of handfasting rituals, trial marriages that lasted a year and a day. This is also where the tradition of jumping the broom at weddings comes from. Beltane is a fertility festival, and since most pagans aren’t as uptight about sex as the Christians who attempted to convert everybody, there most likely was plenty happening. It was a symbol or renewal and rebirth, and sex is one way to do both. So, lots of sex? Probably so. Orgies around fires? Sounds like something the early church fathers tried to sell as sinful in an effort to gain converts.
Beltane, as well as many other festivals of pre-Christian origin, are making a comeback. Or rather, “The festivals have never completely disappeared. Unlike the other ancient so-called Quartering Days (which mark the changing four seasons) Beltane was not co-opted by Christianity into something else” (Lambert, para. 11). Across Britain and Europe, and in regions of the US, Beltane festivals are becoming quite popular again. Are people realizing that these kinds of festivals are not only fun, but inclusive and welcoming of folk from all walks of life? Who says you can’t go to church in the morning, if that’s your thing, and then dance around a Maypole in the evening with your kids and friends? Or is it a deeper reason? “Beltane is a rural pre-Christian prehistoric tradition which saw communities come together after long winters of isolation. It marked their connection not just to nature but to each other. That need to belong to something or someone hasn’t changed. We can be just as isolated living in the city or in a town as the ancient Britons were in their round houses” (qtd in Lambert, para. 7). Perhaps deep down, all people really want is to get together with each other, have some food, have some drinking and dancing and sex, and enjoy simply being alive.
“Beltane.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2015
“Beltane.” The White Goddess. 2015. Web. 30 April 2015. < http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/the_wheel_of_the_year/beltane.asp>.
Lambert, Victoria. “Beltane: Britain’s Ancient Festival Is Making a Comeback.” The Telegraph. 27 April 2012. Web. 30 April 2015. < http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/9230904/Beltane-Britains-ancient-festival-is-making-a-comeback.html>.
4 thoughts on “Hooray, Hooray, It’s the First of May!”
I have a question. How is it a harvest festival if it’s at the end of winter? I thought it had more to do with planting than harvesting.
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Hey, good catch! I re-read this three times to find where I had “harvest.” It is a pastoral festival, used for cattle and planting, in anticipation of a bountiful harvest. I will correct that. Thanks for asking or I would never have caught it. You are correct that it’s a planting time.
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