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May Day and Beltaine

Author(s) Unknown




It does not matter whether we prefer Beltaine (Bright Fire), Bealtuinn, Floralia, Roodmas, May Day, May Eve, Walpurgis Night, or Cetsamhain, meaning ‘opposite Samhain’ because it falls opposite to Samhain in the Wheel of the Year, the concept behind the celebration is the same. We welcome the first blossoms of spring, while ensuring a plentiful harvest.

There are many God and Goddess names associated with this Sabbat in Neo-Pagan circles today. No matter the name, we still celebrate the Great God and the Great Mother, and the sacred marriage from which all life is sprung.

May Eve night is for purifying and protecting the home against unwanted spirits of all kinds; for honouring the House Guardians, erecting outdoor shrines, and it is a wonderful time for divinations of any sort.

In England the festival was generally known as ‘Maying’, although usually held in June because of the weather.



May Day, which was called Beltaine by the Anglo-Saxons, was considered the first day of summer. May Day was symbolic of a return to life, of the defeat of the hard winter, with new hopes for good planting and rich harvests.

Beltaine was the time of 'milk and honey', the primary time of pleasure, of blossoming and blooming, of desire and satisfaction, so the cow and the bee were both significant symbols for this celebration. After blessing the cows with protective bonfire smoke, they were turned out to pasture, because of the abundance of grass, the milk was of finer quality, the cows yielded much more abundantly, and had to be milked three times each day.

The earliest sources suggest that the maypole acted as a focal point for May festivities or games, marking the spot of the where everyone should meet.

May Day was a rite of passage custom that marked an important seasonal transition in the year. Putting a maypole up involved taking a growing tree from the wood, and bringing it to the village to mark the oncoming season of the summer.

May Day used to be a period of great sexual licence. People would go off into the woods to collect their trees and green boughs, but once there, would enter into all sorts of temporary sexual liaisons which society did not normally accept.

English Maypoles are mentioned in historical accounts as early as the 14th Century, Chaucer (1345-1400) mentions the Maypole in Cornhill in the City of London, and one in Pendleton, now in Greater Manchester is mentioned in a Will of 1373.

There is no evidence that May Day celebrations were connected to pagan beliefs or worship, such accusations were first made by sixteenth century Puritan reformers hostile to all dancing, drunkenness and merry-making, which they associated with idolatry.

Maypoles were attacked by the Puritans, and in 1652 the Parliament banned Maypoles, imposing quite severe fines if they were not destroyed, and many early descriptions of Maypoles are by Puritans who attacked Maypoles as early as the later years of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th Century.

As a result, the May Day customs were curtailed. The Puritans seem to have been the first to link the maypole to heathen worship as a regular part of their propaganda and 'anti-ceremony' agenda.

Even as the old May traditions began to fade, they were revived. Traditional song retained the May Day references.

The tradition of raising maypole to celebrate royal anniversaries began in the 18th century. In 1760, maypoles were erected to celebrate the accession of George III. Likewise in 1887 and 1897 maypoles were erected to celebrate milestones during the reign of Queen Victoria.

May customs and maypoles were reintroduced into the industrial cities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as part of the continued evolution of the celebrations, but by the late 1800s many maypoles, which had stood for decades, were rotted or blown down and not replaced.

May Day is the one festival of the year for which there is no significant church service, because of this it has always been a strong secular festival, particularly among working people who in previous centuries would take the day off to celebrate it as a holiday, often clandestinely without the support of their employer.

May Day was traditionally a people's day and so it was naturally identified with the Labour and socialist movements.

May Day was adopted by international socialist and communist movements in 1889, when a congress of world Socialist parties held in Paris voted to support the U.S. labour movement's demand for an 8-hour day on May 1. Afterward May 1 became a holiday called Labour Day in many nations.

By the twentieth century May Day was firmly rooted as part of the socialist calendar.

In 1975 May Day became a public holiday again in England, for the first time since 1640.

Queen Elizabeth II, had a maypole raised in celebration of her Jubilees in 1977 and 2002.

  Traditional Maypoles
  On the surface, the tall Maypole is simply a phallic symbol to reflect the fertility of the season. However, the Maypole originates with the ancient Irish story of the Bile Pole.

The Bile Pole was a sacred tree of life that grew up through the Earth to join the Heavens above and the Otherworld beneath. A similar story to the Norse tree, Yggdrasil.

Some villages had a permanent Maypole, but others would erect a new one every year on Beltaine eve.

A description of an English Maypole is; A pole which stands all the year, or for May week, and is permanently fixed to the ground. It can be painted or unpainted, and may have Garlands and other forms of decoration attached. Its shaft, traditionally wood, can now be of metal, or plastic. It is often topped by a weather vane. It usually stands in a public space, a three road junction, and/or a village green. It may, or may not, have dancing or other events performed at its base.

In Germany, a Fir tree was cut on May Eve by young unmarried men, branches removed, decorated, put up in village square, and guarded all night until dance occurred on May Day.

Custom dictates that maypoles should be 'drawn home for the woods' and set up in a public place. Usually the maypole came from the estate of a 'Gentleman' who would 'grant' a tree to the community. It was a local patronage given by the local gentry that seems to have continued until the 18th century.

The maypoles were painted in spiral stripes and decorated with garlands. The earliest representations do not show the ribbons that we now associate with maypole dancing.

Descriptions of maypoles are varied. The Wellford maypole was described in 1866 as being placed upon a mound, and dancing took place around the mound. Most were decked with flowers on the top and even in the Victorian period maypoles were photographed with flowered garlands twisted around the maypole.

In the nineteenth century, the use of Ribbons is imported from European maypole dancing. Ribbons became increasingly popular in the folk revival at the start of the 20th century and there was a major initiative to teach ribboned dancing to school children.

A Maypole is from twelve to sixty feet in height, is bestudded with pins to the top, which are hung with garlands and streamers. The Maypole usually consists of a tall straight tree stripped of its branches. The pine is an excellent choice, although some consider the birch even better due to its qualities as a tree of birth and rebirth.

However, the Maypole need not be made out of either pine or birch; the Maypole can be made out of any pole or beam planted in the ground.

Modern maypoles vary in design and use. The Wellford on Avon maypole in Warwickshire is made from the shaft of an aluminium ship's mast and is painted in red, white and blue spirals. Some are made of plastic or cast iron, but the majority are still made of wood.

The traditional painting of the pole includes the 'patriotic' colours of red, white and blue. Many recently restored maypoles continue this tradition. Other maypoles favour the red and white 'barber' pole. Some maypoles are simply painted white.

The majority of 'working maypoles' are only ribboned at the time of public festivities, such as May Day, and remain 'undressed' for the rest of the year.

  Traditional May Dances

The May Dance is of ancient origin, and dates back to the dancing at the 'Feast of Flora'. Flora was the goddess of flowers, and festivals in her honour were held on the last of April, and the first of May.

For many centuries The May Dance became the chief dance of rustic England.

Other countries of Europe also had their dances for celebrating the first of May. In Switzerland these festivals were conducted with great solemnity in the morning, a dramatic representation was given in the afternoon, while the evening time was given up to music and dancing.

Maypole dancing may have its roots in pre Christian history as a fertility dance to welcome the coming summer, it could therefore be an echo of a truly ancient North European ritual.

The May Dance was popular in the rural districts of England until the late 1800s.

The Maypole dance was resurrected as a Child's dance, performed at schools, playgrounds and fairs for children. The children did not just run about, willy-nilly. Quite often they would have a rehearsed dance so that the ribbons wound round the pole would have a pattern. The better the pattern, the better the harvest would be that fall.

Long ribbons are attached to the top of the pole, usually in pastel Spring colours. Half the ribbons would be taken up by the boys, and the other half by the girls. The boys then go clockwise around the pole, and the girls move counter-clockwise. Some raise their arms, and others duck under, to weave the ribbons tightly around the pole.

The Maypole dance is again more than a child's dance, the maypole dance is a fertility rite, which is made obvious by the symbolism of the pole itself, which sticks straight up out of the ground in phallic fashion. To the top of the pole are attached an even number of ribbons of varying colour. The dancers, which usually consist of an equal number of males and females, hold high their arms, and with a ribbon in one hand circle the pole counter to the dancers next to them, weaving in and out and wrapping the ribbons down the length of the pole. Once done, the dancers turn, changing direction and unwrapping the ribbons.

In some places the dancing has been moved to 'summer' festivals and become associated with other local events.

  Other Traditions

Since ancient times, May 1 has been a day for outdoor festivals.

On May Day it was customary for the ancient Romans to march in a procession to the grotto of Egena, where they carried out ceremonies honouring the revival of vegetation and to assure abundant crops.

The English have observed May Day since medieval times. Everyone, with their class or status suspended for a day used to rise at dawn to go 'a-Maying'.

Going a-Maying usually consisted of people going into the forest together looking for the blossoms of the hawthorn tree. The hawthorn, a sacred tree, had protective energies, but only on this night could one take branches and blossoms from the tree.

The ancients also believed that sitting beneath a hawthorn on May Eve could result in the unfortunate sitter being abducted to the underworld.

The hawthorn was not the only thing deflowered while a-Maying; those gone a-Maying into the forests and other secluded spots also took time to collect on their natural urges.

At Beltaine, male and female come together in unabashed sexuality. Young people would spend the night in the woods 'a-maying' and married couples could abandon their vows for the night.

They would return laden with flowers and branches of trees. Once flowers were gathered, the gatherers created from them wreaths and garlands. These were brought back to decorate, bless and protect houses and people.

A May Queen was crowned to reign over the games, dancing, and festivities. Flowers, fruits and other sweets, and a May pole with streamers were featured.

Flowers also figured in another May custom, that of the May King and his triumph over the winter. Until relatively recently in Sweden, the May King would parade down a town street, dressed head to toe in flowers, with a man dressed in furs. The man in the furs was the personification of winter, and this was his time to go. During the procession, the May King accosted the man in furs, pelting him with flowers, thereby driving him off. The May King, victorious, then began his reign.

The male god has gone. Christianity kept the queen of the May, but transformed her into a symbol of Virginity, purity and chastity.

When the Festival was in its prime, all the young men and maidens of the country round would rise at midnight and go into the woods, and returning before the sun was up, laden and bedecked with flowers, evergreen, and boughs, festooned their persons with the spoil.

After sun rise they would join the procession led by 'Jack O' the Green', who was fantastically arrayed with flowers and ribbons.

Then came the rest of the Maypole Dancers, who closed the procession, which was preceded by a band of music. After marching through the principal streets in the village, they gathered at the Maypole, and spent the remainder of the day in dancing and various games around it.

A 'May basket' is prepared by filling a basket with flowers and goodwill. The May basket is given to someone in need of healing and caring, such as a shut-in, or an elderly friend.

A wreath is formed of freshly picked flowers, is worn in the hair, to radiate joy and beauty.

On May Eve, Gardens can be blessed in the old way by making love with in the garden.

A green bough can be fastened to the outside of homes to prevent hunger and want.

Primrose should be plucked before sunrise, and scattered in pathways to deter the Fae who would stir up mischief. The Primrose blossoms are also placed about the home to stave off evil forces.

Chaplets of white hawthorn blossoms were worn by the ladies, symbolizing the purity of the season. The blossoms turn deep red in the Autumn, as the Great God lies near his death.

Lily of the Valley was a traditional flower given, its semblance was the 'Return of Happiness', with the beginning of the light half of the yearly cycle.

It was thought that there were certain 'herbs of grace' that could be gathered in a magickal number and order. If spoken with the proper incantation, the collector would gain unimaginable wealth and the keys to the Faery Kingdom.

Herbs, fruits, flowers and trees representing Beltaine are the acorn, almond, angelica, ash, bluebells, cinquefoil, daisy, frankincense, hawthorn, honeysuckle, ivy, lilac, marigold, meadowsweet, oak, primrose, rose, St. John's Wort, thyme, woodruff, and all flowers.

May Bowl was punch (wine or non-alcoholic) made of Sweet Woodruff blossoms.

In ancient times Druid priests kindled fire at sacred places; in later times, Christian priests kindled fire in fields near the church after performing a Christian church service.

In ancient times, the first ceremonial fire was lit at Tara, signifying the beginning of the ritual. Followers would then light their own fires, and begin the festivities of the last night of the true dark.

Beltaine community fire purification customs included symbolic sacrifice of effigy knobs on the Beltaine Cake of barley to the fire, or in medieval times, mock sacrifice of 'Beltaine Carline' or Hag who received blackened piece of Beltaine Cake.

Livestock was driven through the ashes, or between two fires, for purification and fertility blessings.

Rowan twigs were carried around the fire three times, then hung over hearths to bless homes.

Wishes were made as one jumped a bonfire or candle flame for good luck.

Contemporary Pagans burn sacred wood and dried herbs as offerings in their Beltaine fires.

In Spain, Maypoles were each topped with a male effigy which was later burned.

In parts of France, only girls dance around the pole while a boy wrapped in leaves, who is called Father May, is led around it.

In Bavaria, the maypole is erected in front of a tavern, a man called Walber is wrapped in straw, and he dances around it. Feasting follow the singing and dancing.

In Scandinavia, it is tradition to set up many maypoles at each house. The festivities are celebrated at midsummer instead of the beginning of May.

Herbs were gathered while still wet with dew, to glean the powers of the May Water.

May Water is used in rituals for beauty, hex lifting, purification, and special favours.

Roll in May Eve dew or wash your face in pre-dawn May Day dew for health and good luck. Women wash their faces with the May Day dew, to keep their beauty and youth.

Get your head and hair wet during Beltaine rain to bless your head.

Bless springs, ponds, other sacred waters with flowers, garlands, ribbons, other offerings.

Collect sacred waters and scry in sacred springs, wells, ponds, or other waters.

Fire and salt are never given away to beggars on May Eve, or on May Day itself, because they were considered the two most important things given to man.

Milk and butter were not given away on May Eve, or on May Day, because it was thought that the Fae would steal or curdle all milk produced by the benefactor's cattle for the entire year. It was also said that 'no strange hand should milk the cow' on these days, as the Fae were thought tricksters who would disguise themselves and steal the milk away for their own stores.

Jumping the balefire is thought to bring good luck. Single persons jump the balefire for a good marriage to come soon, travellers jump the balefire for safety and return, expectant mothers jump the balefire for an easy childbirth and blessed child.

It is also good luck to take from the fire a flaming branch, and to light your home fires with it, bringing the blessing of the Lord and Lady into the home.

Divination of Faery prints was popular, by scattering ashes on the threshold of the home. If the footprints left turned inward, it meant that marriage was imminent. If the prints turned outward, it meant death for a member of the household.


The meaning of 'Beltaine' is 'Bel-fire', in homage to the balefires lit to honour the Gods on this day.

Beltaine is one of two Sabbats during which the veil between this plane and the next is at its thinnest, the second of these Sabbats being Samhain. Beltaine is the midpoint between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. It is called a 'cross quarter'.

Beltaine, also known as May Day or May Eve, has been celebrated in many cultures and in many different ways. Beltaine falls on the first evening of May, or on the last evening of April, as people once considered that the beginning of a new day occurred at dusk.

Beltaine, is a fertility Sabbat, which marks the last day of the planting season. Beltaine celebrates life and renewal and a time of hope. Beltaine is the traditional celebration that marks the beginning of summer, and the abundance associated with warmer months.

The balefire played such an important role that not only did certain rules cover its making and uses, but a law was even passed in ancient Ireland making it illegal for anyone to light a balefire until the king first did so himself.

One of the balefire's purposes was purification, a practice used for ages to remove negative energies such as disease and physical impurities and replace them with positive energies.

Beltaine especially celebrated love, attraction, courtship and mating; that yearly groundswell of desire we know as 'spring fever'. Beltaine is a festival of flowers, fertility, sensuality, and delight.