Beltane is the Gaelic May Day festival, usually held on 1st May, or approximately halfway between the spring equinox (Ostara) and summer solstice (Litha). Beltane, loosely translated, means bright fire and historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
Beltane is also known as Cétshamhain, "first of summer", and marked the beginning of summer as it was when cattle were taken to the summer pastures. Rituals were then performed to protect the cattle, people and their crops, and to therefore encourage growth. Special bonfires were created and their flames, smoke and ashes were believed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around, between and sometimes even leap over the flames of the fire.
These gatherings would also be accompanied by a feast and folk would decorate their doors, windows, barns and livestock with yellow May flowers, which evoked a sense of fire. In parts of Ireland specifically, people would make a May Bush: most commonly a thorn bush or single branch decorated with flowers, ribbons, bright shells and rushlights.
Beltane celebrations had largely died out by the mid-20th century, although since the late 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed a festival based on Beltane as a religious holiday and the practice of its traditions continues today.
One such tradition is the lighting of ‘Beltane Bonfires'. Flowers and May Bushes are still also a part of the traditions observed and yellow and white flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel, and marsh marigold are still annually placed at doorways and windows.
Traditions less likely to be observed now include the ‘appeasing of fairies’ whereby practices were designed to ward them off and prevent them from stealing dairy products. An example of this was to place three black coals under a butter churn to ensure the fairies did not steal the butter, and May Boughs were tied to milk pails, the tails of cattle or hung in the barns to ensure the cattle's milk was not stolen. To protect farm produce and encourage fertility, farmers would lead a procession around the boundaries of their farm. People made the sign of the cross with milk for good luck on Beltane, and the sign of the cross was also made on the backsides of cattle.
More superstitious beliefs noted by historians included:
- No household should light a fire on May Day morning until they saw smoke rising from a neighbour's house.
- It was also believed to be bad luck to put out ashes or clothes on May Day.
- To give away coal or ashes would cause the giver difficulty in lighting fires for the next year.
- If the family owned a white horse, it should remain in the barn all day, and if any other horse was owned, a red rag should be tied to its tail.
- Any foal born on May Day was fated to kill a man
- Any cow that calved on May Day would die.
- Any birth or marriage on May Day was generally believed to be ill-fated.
- On May Night a cake and a jug were left on the table, as it was believed that the Irish who had died abroad would return to their ancestral homes that night.
- It was also believed that the dead returned on May Day to visit their friends.
- A robin that flew into the house on Beltane was believed to foretell the death of a household member.
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