Somewhere along the way, Beltaine became conflated with May Day in Ireland. People began celebrating on the first day of May with festivities our ancestors would have considered quite tame. It is also the first day of summer, although the weather rarely cooperates with that. The word ‘beltaine’ is used for the month of May, but the day precedes the modern calendar.
But this is an ancient holiday, and like other pre-Christian festivals in Ireland, it is linked to the sun’s movements. The ancient Celts celebrated Beltaine halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, which this year is May 8th.
Beltaine is the fire festival. People lit fires all over Ireland to celebrate, and the landscape sparkled with their flames. The word comes from Belenus, the Celtic god. Some sources describe him as a sun god, while others consider him a god of pastoralism. The latter makes sense because cattle were once the focus of Beltaine.
The ancient Irish valued cattle highly. They used them almost like a currency, with Breton law fines payable in cows. Cattle were wealth, and of course, cattle were also survival. On Beltaine, people moved their cattle to their summer pastures. But this was no simple cattle drive. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle and ensure their health and fertility. They drove the cattle between two huge bonfires because they believed that the smoke from Beltaine fires would protect them from disease and harm.
Modern Beltaine Fests Honor the Past
While today’s Beltaine celebrations embrace their ancient roots, they don’t generally involve cattle. They do, however, include massive fire displays and bonfires, as well as music and pageantry.
Specifically, this year’s celebration at Uisneach in County Westmeath featured a huge triple spiral in flames. Horses galloped around the fire display with riders wearing face paint in Celtic designs. Uisneach was a site of great spiritual and political importance in ancient Ireland, as it sits at the center of the island where the four provinces meet.
In County Donegal, on Beltaine, the rising sun appears directly over the only decorated stone in an ancient stone circle known as the Beltany Circle. No celebrations have been held there in recent times, but apparently it was once an important place for Beltaine festivities.
Ireland is not the only place Beltaine is celebrated. Edinburgh also hosts a large celebration with fires and drummers. And many people around the world hold their own smaller, private celebrations. Lighting a massive bonfire in the back yard is not going to make you popular with the neighbors or the local fire department. But a chimera on the patio is a great alternative. Sitting around a campfire at a campground or the beach with friends is also a good way to remember honor the arrival of summer. Or if you live in a cool, damp climate, you might be more tempted to just light a fire in the fireplace and dream of warmer days ahead.