Today is BELTANE. This festival officially begins at moonrise on May Day Eve, and marks the beginning of the third quarter or second half of the ancient Celtic year. It is celebrated as an early pastoral festival accompanying the first turning of the herds out to wild pasture.
The rituals were held to promote fertility. The cattle were driven between the Belfires to protect them from ills. Contact with the fire was interpreted as symbolic contact with the sun. In early Celtic times, the druids kindled the Beltane fires with specific incantations. Later the Christian church took over the Beltane observances, a service was held in the church, followed by a procession to the fields or hills, where the priest kindled the fire. A rowan branch is hung over the house fire on May Day to preserve the fire itself from bewitchment (the house fire being symbolic of the luck of the house).
This is a holiday of Union — both between the Goddess and the God and between man and woman. Handfastings (Pagan marriages) are traditional at this time. It is a time of fertility and harvest, the time for reaping the wealth from the seeds that we have sown. Celebrations include braiding of one’s hair (to honour the union of man and woman and Goddess and God), circling the Maypole for fertility and jumping the Beltane fire for luck. Beltane is one of the Major Sabbats of the Wiccan religion.
Those who observe this holiday celebrate sexuality, something seen as holy and intrinsic to humans and they celebrate life and the unity which fosters it. The myths of Beltane state that the young God has blossomed into manhood, and the Goddess takes him on as her lover. Together, they learn the secrets of the sexual and the sensual, and through their union, all life begins.
May Day has long been marked with feasts and rituals. May poles, supremely phallic symbols, were the focal point of old English village rituals. Many people arose at dawn to gather flowers and green branches from the fields and gardens, using them to decorate the village Maypoles. The insertion of the May-pole into the hole in the earth is symbolic of this erotic theme.
The May Queen (and often King) is chosen from among the young people, and they go singing from door to door throughout the town carrying flowers or the May tree, soliciting donations for merrymaking in return for the “blessing of May”. This is symbolic of bestowing and sharing of the new creative power that is stirring in the world. As the kids go from door to door, the May Bride often sings to the effect that those who give will get of nature’s bounty through the year.
In parts of France, some jilted youth will lie in a field on May Day and pretend to sleep. If any village girl is willing to marry him, she goes and wakes him with a kiss; the pair then goes to the village inn together and lead the dance which announces their engagement. The boy is called “the betrothed of May.”