Lá Bealtaine (Irish), Là Bealltainn (Scottish Gaelic), Laa Boaltinn/Boaldyn (Manx), Beltaine, Beltine is a Gaelic Celtic Festival marking the beginning of summer in the ancient Celtic calendar as a Cross Quarter Day; half way between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. Today we call it May Day.
Here’s how to pronounce the word correctly … Bealtaine is said bell-tin-A.
In Irish mythology, summer season started with a Fire Festival at Lá Bealtaine. Two massive bonfires would call for a time of purification and transition from winter to spring, inviting in the spirits that bring a good harvest for that year. These rituals were also meant to protect the people from all harm by bad otherworldly spirits.
The Beltany Stone Circle in the North West of Ireland, is aligned with the sunrise. The sun rises at Beltane behind the only decorated stone in the circle. The Beltany Stone Circle gets its name from Beltane which is associated with the lighting of hilltop fires in a rekindling of the sun. This location was dedicated specifically to this high holy day.
During the Bealtaine rites, the cattle were driven out to the summer pastures between the two massive fires. The fires were meant to carry the prayers for the protection of the cattle and for fertility. The people also danced between the fires for the same reasons.
Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, which evoked fire and sun energies.
In parts of Ireland, people would make a throne May Bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and shells. Yellow flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel, and marsh marigold were placed at doorways and windows in Ireland, Scotland and Mann. Loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows and sometimes they were made into bouquets, garlands or crosses. They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making.
The May Bush was a small tree or branch, typically hawthorn, rowan or sycamore, decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, etc. Household May Bushes would be placed outside each house. Similar to Christmas trees, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighborhood.
In some places, it was customary to dance around the May Bush, and at the end of the festivities it would be burnt in the bonfire as an offering.
Thorn trees are special trees associated with the aos sí, who are the faeries of the sidhe. Faery folklore is deeply rooted in ancient European folk customs.
The dew of Beltane was believed to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.
Walpurgis Night is the English translation of Walpurgisnacht, the Dutch/German name for the night of April 30th. It is the eve of the feast day of May Day. Walpurgisnacht is named for Saint Walpurga and is an attempt by the church to Christianize the feast of Hexennacht (Dutch: heksennacht) which literally means “Witches’ Night.” It is believed to be the night of a great pagan gathering on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of wooded hills in central Germany between the rivers Weser and Elbe.
Local variants of Walpurgis Night are observed throughout Europe in the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, and Estonia. In Denmark, the tradition with bonfires to fence off the witches going to the Brocken is observed as Saint John’s Eve – essentially a midsummer celebration with witches. These rites of Walpurgis Night harken to older fertility rites associated with Bealtaine.
On Hexennacht, sacred trees are adorned with ribbons for May Day blessings. The colored ribbons are tied to the branches for luck, healing and blessings. Today we call them wishing trees and they carry the desires of prayers and wishes of those who tie them there.
The maypole is a tall wooden pole erected as a part of various European folk festivals, around which a maypole dance takes place. The pole itself has phallic symbolism and the hoop and ribbons are symbolic of the female. The dance is one of fertility as the ribbons are entwined tighter and tighter until they can braid no more, ie. climax. The Maypole was most likely erected between the two massive bon fires as a rite of fertility. It is believed by many pagans that Bealtaine was a night when marriage bonds were dropped in hopes of fertility to ensure the survival of the tribes. This is also called the Great Rite. The following day the marriage bonds were back and the children born from the Beataine rites were considered special and magical because of their association with the Faeries.
In parts of Scotland there was another ritual involving the oatmeal cake. The cake would be cut and one of the slices marked with charcoal. The slices would then be put in a bonnet and everyone would take one out while blindfolded. Whomever got the marked piece would have to leap through the fire three times. For some time afterwards, the people would speak of him as if he were dead, leaving us to question whether this might be leftover from actual human sacrifices of more ancient times or maybe it was always just a symbolic action to ward off spirits.