Beltane, one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals, is the Celtic May Day. Historically widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, Beltane used to mark the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures.
Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth.
Special bonfireswere kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire, or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the aos sí (spirits). Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire.
In some parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush: a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.
All hearth fires and candles would be doused before the bonfire was lit, generally on a mountain or hill.
In the 19th century, the ritual of driving cattle between two fires was still practised across most of Ireland and in parts of Scotland. Sometimes the cattle would be driven “around” a bonfire or be made to leap over flames or embers. The people themselves would do likewise.
In the Isle of Man, people ensured that the smoke blew over them and their cattle.
When the bonfire had died down, people would daub themselves with its ashes and sprinkle it over their crops and livestock. Burning torches from the bonfire would be taken home, where they would be carried around the house or boundary of the farmstead and would be used to re-light the hearth.
From these rituals, it is clear that the fire was seen as having protective powers. As a matter of fact bonfires were meant to mimic the Sun and to “ensure a needful supply of sunshine for men, animals, and plants”, but they were also meant to symbolically “burn up and destroy all harmful influences”.
Food was also cooked at the bonfire and there were rituals involving it. Everyone present would take an oatmeal cake, called the bannoch Bealltainn or “Beltane bannock”. A bit of it was offered to the spirits to protect their livestock (one bit to protect the horses, one bit to protect the sheep, and so forth) and a bit was offered to each of the animals that might harm their livestock (one to the fox, one to the eagle, and so forth). Afterwards, they would drink the caudle.
It is a tall erected wooden pole around which maypole dances take place.
The practice had become increasingly popular throughout the ensuing centuries, with the maypoles becoming “communal symbols” that brought the local community together: even poorer parishes would join up with neighbouring ones in order to obtain and erect one.
As revived, the dance consisted of pairs of boys and girls (or men and women) stand alternately around the base of the pole, each holding the end of a ribbon. They weave in and around each other, boys going one way and girls going the other and the ribbons are woven together around the pole until the merry-makers meet at the base. There are also more complex dances for set numbers of dancers, involving complicated weaves and unweaves.
In some regions, a somewhat different Maypole tradition existed: the carrying of highly decorated sticks. The sticks had hoops or cross-sticks or swags attached, covered with flowers, greenery or artificial materials such as crepe paper. Children would take these hand-held poles to school on May Day morning and prizes may be awarded for the most impressive. This tradition is known as garlanding, and was a central feature of May Day celebrations in central and southern England until the mid-19th century.