“For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back.”
Excerpt from: “May Day”, from the album “Songs from the Wood” by Jethro Tull (which contains many references to Pagan customs)
The celebration of Beltane on May 1st is one of the most important festivals the year. The word Beltane literally means shining fire. Beltane, the old Celtic name for this holiday, is derived from the Irish Gaelic Bealtaine or the Scottish Gaelic Bealtuinn, each meaning Bel-fire. Bel-Fire is the term for the fire of the Celtic god of light Bel, Beli or Belinus. This is one of the most exciting festivals of the Wheel of the Year and it is also one of the only holidays that is usually celebrated in the light of day.
Beltane celebrates the union of the Goddess and the Horned God and the fertility in all things. In ancient days, cattle were driven through the Beltane fires for purification and fertility. A Maypole was central in all the celebrations. It was originally a phallic symbol representing the Horned God with the ribbons in gay pastel colors representing the Goddess. Traditionally a fir was used for the pole. The young, unwed men would go to the forest and return with the tree that would be fashioned into a pole. The pole was brought to the center of the village and guarded through the night until the first day of May. On that day, the people would come and dance around the maypole clockwise to bring fertility and good luck. Later, brightly colored ribbons were woven around the pole by dancers as they wove around each other. The wrapping of the Maypole with the ribbons represented the union of the Goddess and the Horned God and the fertility of the season. This also symbolizes the balance of masculine and feminine energies and the duality of life. The ribbons would then be removed and kept in a safe place to be burned in the Beltane fires of next year. This action represents the old dying to give birth to the new.
One of the most beautiful customs associated with this festival was Bringing in the May. The young people of the villages and towns would go out into the fields and forests at Midnight on April 30th and gather flowers with which to bedeck themselves, their families, and their homes. They would return to the villages, stopping at each home to leave flowers, and would receive the best of food and drink that the home had to offer. This custom is somewhat similar to Trick or Treat at Samhain and was very significant to the Ancients. These revelers would bless the fields and flocks of those who were generous and wish ill harvests on those who withheld their bounty.
Fertility is a central theme of Beltane. The people lived in close connection with the Earth. To have food to eat, the crops and the beasts of the fields would have to be fertile. In the time of the Ancients, this was a life and death matter. For this reason, we have a number of holidays and rituals that are connected with fertility.
Another fertility representation is the custom of jumping the cauldron. Couples wishing to conceive children will jump the cauldron together. Fertility of all areas of life are invoked during this holiday, as well as sexual fertility. This is the day for Wiccans to laugh and banter about having the most joyous of times!