We’re coming up on Beltane, which will fall either on April 30 or May 1, depending on your custom. This was once one of the largest Irish holidays, along with Samhain in the fall, and the two are linked, as Beltane celebrates (and seeks to encourage) the fecundity of nature, while Samhain celebrates the harvest.
Beltane fell out of popularity in the 20th century, although it has been revived throughout Ireland and the British Isles by the neo-pagan movement. To an extent, Beltane merged with May Day celebrations, and this seems fitting, as Beltane festivals seem to have started with rituals about cattle when Ireland had a significant herding population, incorporated rituals to protect crops as the country became increasingly dotted with farms, and absorbed labor rituals when Ireland became increasingly industrial.
I will take just a moment to sketch in some of the historic details of the holiday and will discuss its traditions, and then I’ll talk about it’s history in the United States. Firstly, the name Beltane is supposed to refer to fire — the Bel in the name may refer to the ancient Celtic sun god Belenus coupled with the ancient Celtic word teine, meaning fire. (I will point out that this is one possible explanation for the name; there are others.) And so the holiday has a lot of fire associated with it, especially enormous bonfires, which once cattle were led between, house fire were lit from, and sometimes people would jump over.
It is also a holiday of yellow flowers, perhaps also representing fire, or the light of the sun. Irish houses were decorated with yellow flowers for the holiday, placed across doorways and windows in garlands and bouquets; these flowers were even used to decorate cattle. The Irish also had a longtime custom of a May Bush, which was a thorn tree covered with flowers, ribbons, and other bright decorations. It was also a tradition in Ireland to visit holy wells.
May Poles also have a history in Ireland, a practice that was perhaps borrowed from the English.
Just as Beltane was mostly abandoned by the Irish at the start of the 20th century in then revived by neo-pagans in Britain and Ireland at the end of the 20th century, most of the history of the holiday in America dates to the last half century and is largely associated with pagan revivals. But elements of Beltane have appeared here and there throughout America history.
In 1892, the Irish American Weekly ran a long article about Irish May Day customs, implicitly to encourage the publication’s New York audience to follow some of these traditions, including decorating houses and poles with may flowers, as well as the May Bush. (The article mentions rivalries between neighborhood organizations about who would have the finest May Bush, as well as who could “boast the hottest bonfire”); according to “The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs” by Kevin Danaher, these rivalries grew so heated and so raucous that the practice was banned during the Victorian era.
In May of 1894, a park in Trenton, New Jersey, offered May Poles for children to use; this was explicitly linked with Beltane in the Trenton Evening Times.
But it is in the 1980s that we start finding news stories about Beltane as a newly revived holiday in the U.S. The San Diego Union published a story about three area witches — neopagans who were reviving ancient Druidic customs, including the holiday of Beltane. USA Today ran a similar story in October of 1987, interviewing Selena Fox of the Circle Sanctuary, an Illinois group of that name that still exists (and, on further research, I discover my biological mother was associated with; Fox had some kind things to say about her when she passed away a few years ago). In this instance, Fox says of Beltane “Members of Circle Sanctuary celebrate by dancing around the maypole and planting trees.”
Ad so it went, every year or two, stories about contemporary witches and other neopagans and Beltane: The Columbus Dispatch in 1989 writing of a celebration in an area park; the St. Paul Pioneer-Press in 1991 gathering modern Wiccans to discuss the pagan calendar; The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1993 writing of a South Florida Beltane celebration.
There was a literal witch hunt in Palm Beach in 1994 when city officials stared citing local pagans for having celebrations in their backyard — a zoning violation, the officials claimed in a Palm Beach Post story, as the pagans were running a church out of their home. The first violation took place on Beltane. This was during a miserable decade when there was mass hysteria about supposed Satanic ritual abuse, which was often conflated with neopaganism.
But Beltane hasn’t been limited to the neopagan community. I grew up with an annual Beltane celebration, in a manner of speaking. The In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre has had an annual May Day Parade, now 42 years old, that has elements borrowed from the Celtic holiday, including an enormous puppet representing the sun that is presented to the public at the climax of the event. (Parade-goers sing “You Are my Sunshine” as this happens, and it is unexpectedly touching.)
Various Irish groups have also started to revive Beltane. The Niagara Celtic Society and Festival has an annual Beltane Bash benefit, while WaKeeney, Kansas, has an annual Beltane event called Th’ Gathering.
It’s easy enough to revive Beltane in your own home, as the customs are relatively simple: Yellow flowers around your doorway, and, if you can manage it, a bonfire in your backyard or in a legal public place. You might also choose to decorate a May Tree — try to do it well enough that your neighbors become jealous enough to consider stealing it from you, which would happen now and then in Ireland. But here are a few more traditions you might consider:
1. Oatcakes. The humble oat cake is mostly associated with Scotland, but the Irish have made and eaten Scottish-style oatcakes for eons. Scotland has a tradition of eating oatcakes on May Day — they’re called Beltane Bannocks, and I find some evidence that this tradition may have spilled over to Ireland. There are a variety of recipes online, but all are essentially savory oat cookies.
2. May Baskets. In County Cork, little girls carried around brightly decorated baskets and begged money with them. There was a similar tradition in America, but used for begging kisses, that sadly is falling out of use. The process was simple: You would decorate a basket and fill it with flowers or eggs and then leave it on the doorstep of someone you had a fancy for. If they saw you do it, they could chase you down and demand a kiss.
3. Watch “The Wicker Man.” This was, I have discovered, my biological mother Patricia Monaghan’s Beltane custom. I have wacthed the 1973 British horror film (not the recent remake) every year at Halloween for decades, but I think Pat had it right — it’s a Beltane movie.
The story tells of a May Day festival in a Scottish town that has reverted back to paganism, but despite the fact that it is set in Scotland, the film’s practices are drawn from throughout the British Isles and Ireland. (One fellow eve dresses as the Salmon of Knowledge, a figure from the Irish tale of Finn MacCool; a classroom scene has Irish written on the chalkboard). And that makes sense, as the story tells of a revived form of paganism, invented to encourage locals to raise apples.
The Wicker Man himself is of supposedly Druidic origin. While there was no evidence that this was ever used in Ireland (or at all, for that matter), there is now a Wicker Man craft and gift store in Belfast. Presumably, if you wanted to recreate the last scene in the film, you could do so with supplies from this store, but we recommend simply watching the movie, rather than reenacting it.