May Day History: An Invitation From the Sun

Celebrating life, light, and love at Beltaine also known as Beltane, the old Celtic name for May Day.

BY: Mara Freeman


The First of May sounds a clarion call announcing the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere. The sun is in its ascendancy, pouring light and warmth onto the Earth, whose creatures bask in the joyous tide of burgeoning life, sensuality, fertility, and abundance. From Scandinavia to Scotland, from Hawaii to China, people come together to celebrate the irresistible rising of the life-force as they are touched by the warmth and light of the sun. There is a promise of love and a reminder of the constant greening and renewal of life.

For those who follow an Earth-based spiritual tradition, this is a sacred time of the year, celebrated in ways that promote a joyful communion both with each other and with the Green World of nature. Although the practices of modern pagans, Wiccans, Druids, and other groups may differ, in general Beltaine is a time of connection, of honoring the "three Ls:" life, light, and love. ("Beltaine" is the Gaelic spelling; it's also known as "Beltane.")

Much of the inspiration for modern practices is derived from the tradition of the Celtic peoples of the northwest European fringe for whom this festival has always been particularly important. The early Celts divided the year into two halves: the light and the dark, summer and winter, to mark the spiralling wheel of time. To celebrate these times of transition, the Celts established two great yearly festivals, each at the threshold of the new cycle: Samhain, (November 1st) opens the door into the dark half of the year, while Beltaine (May 1st) ushers in the cycle of summer. At Samhain, the rituals recognize themes of separation, darkness, decrease, cold, and death. At Beltaine we celebrate life's unity, increase, light, and growth.

Fires play an important part in all the major Celtic festivals for they are an earthly reflection of the Sun, once seen as the great Source of all life. When the Druids and their successors gathered the wood of nine sacred trees and raised the Beltaine fires on hilltops throughout the British Isles on May Eve, they were performing a real act of magic, for the fires were lit in order to bring the sun's light down to earth. When the wood burst into flames, it proclaimed the triumph of the light over the dark half of the year. In Scotland, every fire in the household was extinguished, a brief time of darkness followed, and then all the villagers climbed the hill to rekindle their flame from the new source with great rejoicing.

The maypole, that well-known symbol of summer's return, was popular in the more English-influenced parts of the British Isles, especially Wales and Cornwall. On May Eve in Wales, country-people of all ages headed for the woods singing songs of May-time and blowing loud horns. They felled a tall birch-tree and hauled it back to the village on a wagon drawn by oxen. At sunrise, the young people decked their houses with the branches of May and the maypole was set up on the village green, bright with garlands of flowers and colored bows, rosettes and ribbons. In Ireland, many households created a May bush to be their "Tree of Life" during this seasonal tide. A bough, preferably of hawthorn, was decorated with flowers, ribbons, paper streamers and other bright scraps of material, and sometimes a golden ball was hung from the bush, to represent the sun. Candles or rush-lights were attached to it and it was lit with all due ceremony at dusk on Beltaine Eve.

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