Bealtaine is the Celtic feast day that marks the beginning of summer and the true end of winter. (Beltane is the anglicized version of the name.) Some may argue that the spring equinox is the end of winter. Perhaps it is for you, but where I live, it is still a bit chilly in March, and this year, we got quite a bit of snow on the day of spring equinox! And some may also say that the summer solstice is the first day of summer. Again, where I live, it has been warm for quite a while by the time the summer solstice comes along– despite what is printed on your calendar, the summer solstice is Midsummer.
Now, back to Bealtaine– In Irish mythology, Bealtaine was the day that the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland. It is one of the four festival days listed on the Coligny calendar, on the opposite side of the year from Samhain. These four Celtic festival days, Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasadh, they have their roots in the agricultural and pastoral cycles. At Bealtaine, the herds were brought out to summer grazing lands. The livestock were driven between two fires for purification from disease and as a way for the deities to bless the herds and insure fertility.
As for other customs of Bealtaine, there are so many, that I might be writing all day, but I will list a few here then go on to dispel some misconceptions…
~Hilltop gatherings– on Bealtaine Eve, folks gathered on hills to view the rising sun.
~Bealtaine sacred fires– great fires were kindled (with the wood of nine sacred trees) to bless the whole community- the people livestock, crops; the dying embers were tossed into the fields. All hearth fires would be put out and then a new fire would be kindled using an ember from the Bealtaine fire. People linked hands and danced around the flames, walked around, chanting prayers, and many jumped through the flames for luck and prosperity. It was taboo to give away fire or food on Bealtaine.
~Offerings were made- some offerings were cast into the fire, and milk, custard, and ale were poured upon the ground. (See “Survivals in Belief Among the Celts” by George Henderson p262.)
~A dangerous time, concerning fairies– the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thin at Bealtaine, as it is Samhain, it was a time that the fairies could cross more easily. However, at Bealtaine, more so even than at other liminal times, the fairy race is dangerous and predatory- there is a greater risk of being taken.
~Magic dew– if you rise at dawn and bathe your face in the magical dew of Bealtaine, you will ensure lasting beauty and youthfulness. Walking in the dew will keep your feet from getting sore. Sprinkling people with water/dew is another popular May day custom.
~Flowers!- gathered and left on doorsteps (or on doorknobs in May baskets), flower boughs hung over windows and doorways and petals strew over thresholds to deter fairies. Flower wreaths were exchanged by sweethearts. The luckiest flower of Bealtaine is the marsh marigold. People dressed up in costumes and went in procession singing and dancing through town carrying boughs of flowers.
~Origins of the name Bealtaine- contrary to popular thought, the name Bealtaine most likely does not refer to the god Belenus. Bealtaine probably means bright fire or new fire. Belenus was a Gaulish god, and it is not certain whether or not Bealtaine was observed in Gaul.
~There is no historical evidence of “the great rite” being a part of Celtic Bealtaine rituals. Wiccans believe that Bealtaine is the time of year that “The Goddess” and “The God” consummate their passions. Purification and fertility of land and livestock were the main focal points of Bealtaine in Celtic lands. And, contrary to popular belief, handfastings took place at Lughnasadh, not Bealtaine.
~The Maypole was not an ancient Celtic tradition. It is of German origin at dates back to the 16th century- and the kind with ribbons that are woven around is an even more recent variation. The Celtic tradition is/was to decorate a May bush- a branch of piece of a tree (sometimes a living tree) is decorated with flowers and blown eggs. Some of these decorate the inside of homes, some are set outside- that ones outside were danced around in the evening of Bealtaine.
~There are some other names (I’m not talking about alternative spellings) used for Bealtaine by some in the Neopagan community which don‘t really jive… “Roodmas” is actually the Catholic holiday of the “finding of the cross”- it takes place on May 3rd and probably was established as a distraction from Bealtaine. There’s a similar thing with “Lady Day”; it is a Catholic holiday, the “feast of the annunciation of the blessed virgin” and takes place on March 25th, not May 1st. (Yes, and it probably was placed there to distract from some kind of spring equinox celebration taking place somewhere.) My point is, these names, and other Catholic holiday names are often listed in Neopagan books and articles as alternate names for Celtic (and other polytheistic) holidays without any background on what they really mean.