May 1st, Beltane (bright fire), is an ancient pagan festival marking the end of the winter half of the year in the Northern hemisphere. With the winter over, the lengthening of the days, and the first planting completed, farmers celebrated with great bonfires of purification and transition into the new growing season, all in hopes for a good harvest.
Beltane provides a gateway between our own Earth and the magical Earth of Faerie. The true inner powers of the Earth reveal themselves and the curtain between the worlds is especially thin during Beltane.
The pagan rites, led by druids, the priests for their time, centered on protecting people, livestock and the land from the spirit world which they felt was particularly close at hand during this season and encouraging fertility. It was a call to awaken the body from its winter hibernation.
The turning points of the Celtic year were marked by four great “fire festivals, Beltane, along with Samhain (Nov. 1), Imbolc (Feb. 1), and Lughnassadh (Aug. 1). Ancient records tell us that all hearth fires, throughout the country, would be put out on Beltane eve. One by one the druid would re-ignite them from the “need fire,” one of a pair of bonfires on top of a hill lit on Beltane eve. The villagers would drive their cattle between the fires to purify them and bring good luck. The villagers also passed between the two fires for purification and to ensure their own good fortune and fertility.
Another custom associated with Beltane is the “bringing in the May.” Here the young people would gather in the neighboring fields and forests Beltane eve and gather flowers to adorn themselves, their families and their houses. They would proceed through the village and stop at each house leaving flowers in exchange for the best food and wine. As they went along, they would bless the flocks and fields of those who were generous and wish ill on those who did not.
Later on, the May Pole was added to the bringing in the May. It was a phallic symbol that represented fertility. The village revelers who went out in the fields and forest would cut down a tree, bring it back into the village, decorate it with flowers, and dance around the May Pole.
Over time the holiday, first associated with the farm laborers, became synonymous with International Worker’s Day and took on a political meaning with demonstrations and celebration of union workers and other groups. The May 1st demonstrations in Australia led by the Stonemasons Society in 1856 and the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886, eventually led to the adoption of the 8 hour work day. In addition, May 1st has long been associated with various socialist, communist and anarchist groups. May Day celebrations in communist countries feature elaborate military parades.
Today, to Wiccans and those in other Pagan circles, Beltane is a happy time filled with laughter that includes the May Pole, bringing in the May, and other activities symbolic of fertility.