May Day originates from the Celtic festival of Beltane/Bealtuinn/Bealtaine, which was related to the waxing power of the sun as we move closer to summer. Beltane is an ancient spring festival that celebrates joy, optimism, union and fertility. It’s an astronomical holiday, one of the year’s four cross-quarter days, or day that falls more or less midway between an equinox and solstice – in this case the Spring equinox and Summer solstice, on or about May 1. It heralds the returning of the sun, warmth, rich fields, blooming flowers and crops and fertility in all its forms from the land and animals to our own bodies. Our ancestors were seasonal people, and they sure loved their sun, so the celebration for the turning of the year toward summer certainly made folks merry!
A Fire Festival?
Beltane/May Day is a Fire Festival. A fire festival uses bonfires as the ceremonial centerpiece to represent the end of one season and the start of the next. At Beltane, traditionally, people lit fires through which livestock were driven (for cleansing and luck) and around which people danced, moving in the same direction that the sun crosses the sky. Wrapping a Maypole with colorful ribbons is perhaps the best known of all May Day traditions and symbolically recreates this movement toward the light. The fertile soil, now sprouting the seeds that were planted at Imbolc or the Spring Equinox, depending where you live, is also blessed and celebrated. May Day is a time of frivolity and warmth – it’s a SEXY time as we celebrate the blooming beauty of the Earth as a maiden unfurling her petals toward the sun in rapture of its radiance.
These days somewhat of a resurgence in traditional Celtic holidays has come about. This probably has its roots in various sources such as increased respect for earth-centered traditions, widening acceptance of diversity of beliefs and a longing for connection with one’s ancestral ways. There are very large annual Beltane celebrations held in Ireland, Wales and England, with probably the largest (with over 12,000+ people in attendance) being held in Edinburgh, Scotland. In Nagoya, Japan, residents still celebrate the annual Honen-sai festival. This is held each year in the spring, to make sure the crops will be plentiful, and includes a parade – the highlight of which is a giant penis on a float (the penis, carved from a cypress tree, is about fourteen feet long). Here in America, there are many smaller celebrations that occur all around the country in just about every state, and you can generally find May Day festivities on nearly every church lawn and hometown central park.
Why should I celebrate or what can I do to honor these traditions in my home?
While there are certainly plenty of formal Beltane rituals and festivals that one can attend, some more solitary folk might prefer to do something more simple within their home. We can easily decorate our home in the bounty of fresh May flowers that are blooming. We can create an altar, or dress our mantle in bouquets or garlands made from flowers. It’s lovely to create a floral crown to wear. Candles of yellow, green, blue, pink and purple can be used to reflect the rising colors of spring flowers and lighting them brings the fire of this season into your home. Outside, perhaps potting some flowers and herbs as you sing or say a little prayer of blessing: such as this or
“Dearest Mother, bless my home with love and joy,
bless my children, girl and boy
bless my garden, plants and food
I honor you with air, water, fire, earth and wood.”
If you feel like entertaining, why not consider hosting a barbecue or small house gathering for some friends? Make some cocktails with elderflower lemonade or cordial. When was the last time you lit that patio firepit and toasted some marshmallows? Unless you want it to be an observed occasion, there’s no reason you have to tell everyone that you are marking the day as Beltane ritual. Call it a May Day party or nothing at all. Your intention is still the same, and your mindful awareness as you make your preparations will be perfect and enough.
Sample menu: (recipes to come)
Elderflower syrup (for making cocktails or lemonade)
Spinach and cherry salad with crumbled goat cheese, red onion and slivered almonds
Grilled Asparagus with boiled egg and balsamic drizzle
Rosemary and lemon marinated chicken
Grilled garlic and olive oil potato circles
Lemon pound cake with edible flowers