Beltane or Beltain is the Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly it is held on 30 April–1 May, or halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It was observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
Beltane or Beltain /'b?lte?n/ (also Beltine or Beltaine) is the Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly it is held on 30 April–1 May, or halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It was observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Irish it is Bealtaine, in Scottish Gaelic Bealltainn and in Manx Gaelic Boaltinn or Boaldyn. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals; along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh.
Beltane is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology. It marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire, or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush; a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe.
As a festival, Beltane had largely died-out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. Since the latter 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Beltane, or something based on Beltane, as a religious holiday. Neopagans in the Southern Hemisphere often celebrate Beltane at the other end of the year (31 October–1 November).
Beltane was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (1 November), Imbolc (1 February), Beltane (1 May) and Lughnasadh (1 August). Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were held at that time to protect them from harm, both natural and supernatural, and this mainly involved the "symbolic use of fire". There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products and people, and to encourage growth. The sí (often described as 'the spirits' or 'the fairies') were thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain) and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease the sí. Beltaine was a "spring time festival of optimism" during which "fertility ritual again was important, perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun".
Bonfires continued to be a key part of the festival in the modern era, and were generally lit on mountains and hills.
Yellow flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel and marsh marigold were set at doorways and windows in 19th century Ireland, Scotland and Mann. Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows and sometimes they would be made into bouquets, garlands or crosses and fastened to them. They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making. It is likely that such flowers were used because they evoked fire.
The May Bush was popular in parts of Ireland until the late 19th century. This was small tree, typically a thorn tree, that would be decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, and so forth. There were household May Bushes (which would be set outside each house) and communal May Bushes (which would be set in a public spot or paraded around the neighbourhood). In Dublin and Belfast, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighbourhood. In some places, it was customary to dance around the May Bush, and at the end of the festivities it was burnt in the bonfire.
Wiccans use the name "Beltane" for their May Day celebrations. It is one of the yearly "Sabbats" of the Wheel of the Year, following Ostara and preceding Midsummer. Unlike Celtic Reconstructionism, Wicca is syncretic and melds practises from many different cultures. In general, the Wiccan Beltane is more akin to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans enact a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady.
In Irish Gaelic, the festival is usually called Lá Bealtaine ("day of Beltane") while the month of May is Mí Bhealtaine ("month of Beltane"). In Scottish Gaelic, the month is called (An) Cèitean or a' Mhàigh, and the festival is Latha Bealltainn. Sometimes the older Scottish Gaelic spelling Bealltuinn is used. The word Céitean comes from Céad Shamhain, an old alternative name for the festival.
In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealltainn or Là Buidhe Bealltainn ("the yellow day of Beltane") is used to describe the first day of May. This term Lá Buidhe Bealtaine is also used in Irish and is translated as "Bright May Day". In Ireland it is referred to in a common folk tale as Luan Lae Bealtaine; the first day of the week (Monday/Luan) is added to emphasize the first day of summer.
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