Today is Beltane. commonly known as May Day. It is one of the four major celebrations in the ancient Celtic calendars that mark a change of season. Beltane heralds summer. Beltane is a wildl festival of a day, beginning at the break of dawn when maidens rise to roll in the wet grass of early morning and scrub their faces with dewdrops scraped from leaves in hopes of becoming more sexually attractive. May dew also maintains youthfulness and cures skin ailments
The first bucket drunk from a well on Beltane morning was supposed to be particularly efficacious in granting protection and good health during the coming year. But even those who couldn’t rise in time made sure to visit sometime during the day, praying as they circled sacred springs and holy wells three times sunwise before leaving an offering of coins or strips of rags called clooties, tied to a nearby tree.
May bushes received their share of decoration . Consisting of small flowering bushes or branches, usually hawthorn, rowan or sycamore—decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, strips of embroidery. or strings of berries. Each house had a bush and so did every settlement. As ever the Celts relished rivalries and neighborhoods sometimes stole each other’s May bushes much as todays sports teams vie to filch each other’s mascots or trophies. In some places, it was customary to dance around the May Bush and then burn it at the end of the night on the Beltane bonfire fire.
The Celts were cattle men first and foremost. May Day was primarily a religious rite wherein powerful elemental magic in the form of fire and smoke was invoked to protect their beasts. Each family brought their herds with at least the lead cow scrubbed clean, brushed and hung with garlands of yellow flowers. The cows were driven three times around a huge bonfire or made two walk between two fires making sure each animal and family member became successfully smudged at some point in the proceedings as protection against disease and promote fertility.
Bonfires burned all day, topped up continually with dry fuel and damp healing herbs to make sure every person and animal received their blessing from the smoke.
As the day progressed, people visited fairy mounds and stone circles to leave food and milk for the fairy folk. Caudle, warm alcoholic drinks made of breadcrumbs, wine, honey, and saffron, brought to a boil, then thickened with egg yolks, and sprinkled with spice. Women baked oatcakes in the embers. Once cooled, they were broken into bits and offered to the various domestic animals, supernatural entities, sacred locations, children and adults.
All day the wine and ale flowed the dancing singing, feasting, storytelling and trade continued through the daylight hours. By night time, couples were pairing to steal into the darkness. It was a night of freedom and license when the usual rules of society were temporarily suspended.
I’ve only focused on Celtic traditions here but Germanic Europe has its own particular May Day traditions like the May Pole, that are quite similar and equally fascinating. I’m emphasizing the Celts because I want to include a poem from my Irish Book Sitting on the Hag Seat: A Celtic Knot of Poems, but I couldn’t leave out the May Pole, so it’s here too.
Cathair Crobh Dearg
Cathair Crobh Dearg, The City, is the site of an ancient Irish settlement in County Kerry that sits directly beneath the twin hills known as the Paps of Anu. To this day cattle and people come to The City to perform an ancient ritual in which they circle the sacred well and old stone walls three times, saying prayers for protection and blessing as they go. They are Christian prayers now, of course, but the practice is almost as old as these hills.
The city of the Tuatha Dé
lies cradled within a circle of stone
below the Paps of Anu,
mother god of Celts
as shrouded in mystery
as the mist encircled mountains
named for her breasts.
Today the hills stand stark
outlined upon a pale sky.
Breeze ripples meadow grasses,
sunshine kisses dreaming faces.
This is a thin place, temenos of resurrection
where spirits wander out of body and time
re-enacting ancient rite by rote
climbing the mountainside
building the cairns, lighting Beltane fires.
Farmers still march cattle deosil,
thrice round stacked stone walls
praying for protection.
Drop water from the holy well
in ears and mouth and nose
of eldest cow and youngest.
Make a pilgrimage of penance,
scratch rock on rock,
incise the sign of Christ
on first May mornings
while Blessed Mother
watches from her ledge, beneficent
as that first, oldest Mama.
She asks small tokens-
acorn, blossom, feather…
keeping seasonal rites
respect for sacred sites.
If this is done, we’ll all
be well and prosper.
Wild nights and bawdy days
May moon rides the heaving waves
whales leap to arch and moan
churn the sea to creamy foam
inland forests sway and writhe
tangled limbs all long and lithe
part around a dancing ground
level floor, grassy mound
pierced by pole straight and tall
curtained in a ribbon shawl
crimson, rosy, yellow, blue
every known shade and hue
held by maidens, mothers, crones
husbands, sons, codgers, drones
male, female weaving, mating
life in balance, all relating.