Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere will begin celebrating the spring festival of Beltane Saturday night, affirming the abundance of the coming year as summer approaches. The holiday, better known as May Day, is one of eight annual “sabbats” or festivals on the pagan calendar. For those unfamiliar with Beltane, here are six important facts about the pagan festival’s history and traditions.
Beltane comes from the Celtic word meaning “fires of Bel.” It’s a reference to the Celtic sun deity, Belenus. Beltane, also spelled Beltine or Beltaine, gets its name as well from the Gaelic word "teine," meaning fire. The ancient Celts marked the coming summer with feasts and rituals that honored fertility and the beginning of open pasturing, such as driving cattle between two bonfires — a custom that was believed to magically shield the animals from disease before they were led into summer pastures. This particular ritual was practiced in Ireland until the 19th century.
The holiday is still prominently celebrated in Ireland and Scotland. Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival on the night of April 30 is one of the world’s most famous Beltane celebrations and draws people from around the world for festivities which, while not explicitly religious, are meant to evoke the ancient traditions of Scotland.
Beltane is observed at different times in different places. Modern pagans, aka neopagans, usually celebrate on April 30 to May 1 in the Northern Hemisphere and on Oct. 31 to Nov. 1 in the Southern Hemisphere, beginning and ending at sunset.
Fire is one of the most significant motifs in Beltane. The celebration was traditionally associated with purification and revitalization, so rituals have historically incorporated bonfires. People typically jumped over the blaze at Beltane festivals in the belief that it would bring fertility and good fortune. Modern pagans continue this tradition of building bonfires today.
Modern-day rituals typically involve dancing around a maypole. The ceremonial folk dance performed around a pole hung with ribbons is not exclusive to Beltane. It’s a common practice in many folk traditions across Europe on May 1. Some pagans use the holiday as an opportunity for small, thoughtful gestures toward those in need of healing or care, like preparing a basket of fresh flowers for elderly or shut-in neighbors.
Beltane is also a time for planting and cultivating. Certain trees have distinct associations with the pagan festival, including ash, oak and hawthorn.