by Kathleen Dupree
Beltane, occurring in the modern calendar on April 30, is one of the seasonal festivals of ancient Celtic culture. These festivals were based on the agricultural year and were celebrated by the entire population, each nation and each village with their own set of customs but with a few common symbols among all of the Celtic lands.
The word Beltane comes from the name of the Celtic deity, Bel, who was the archetypal lord of life, death and the underworld of spirits. "Tinne" is a Celtic word meaning "fire". Thus, the word "Beltane" means "fire of Bel". The ancient tradition required all home fires to be extinguished at this time. A sacred fire was kindled on behalf of the community by the Druids without flint or steel and was made with nine sacred woods. Embers from it were taken by each family back to their homes. It was symbolic of the renewal of life after the cold winter. By taking the embers from it and rekindling their hearthfires with them the people shared in the sacred, a communal blessing of hope for a prosperous and fertile summer with a bountiful harvest to follow which would see them through the winter months.
Throughout the centuries there arose across Celtic Europe many other customs associated with Beltane. Since this was the time of year when the earth was most fertile, most of the local traditions were concerned with fertility of crops, animals and humans. Beltane was celebrated with flowers, greenery and general revelry. One of the well known symbols associated with Beltane is the maypole. It was made from a tall and straight tree, usually birch or ash, branches removed. It would be decked with flowers and ribbons. Once suitibly decorated it was raised, often in the village square, and would be the focal point of the community activities. It's symbolism is phallic and is in honor of the earth's renewed fertility.
Although the coming of Christianity to Europe has overshadowed much of the original sacred signifiance of Beltane in the minds of most people, and two world wars have spelled the end of many of the local village customs in association with this day, much has survived into the present time that keeps the cultural tradition of Beltane alive. All throughout the Celtic nations, local festivities can be found, often listed in the tourist brochures.
In Padstow, Cornwall an ancient ritual is still enacted by the entire village. At midnight on April 30 the people of Padstow gather together to parade through the streets singing an old song, the "Night Song", stopping at various homes and public houses. At morning's light the "Old Oss" begins his rounds. The "Oss" is a version of the Hobby Horse, a man dressed in a costume consisting of a large hoop draped with cloth to completely cover him. On the front of the hoop is a large painted horse's head. The "Oss" meanders through town as the townspeople sing the "Day Song".
"Unite and unite and let us all unite
For Summer is a-come in today
And whither we are going we all will unite
In the merry Morning of May."
The procession continues through the morning and ends with the "Oss" and all the company gathered about the Maypole which has been set up and bedecked with greenery.
In the Appalachian region of America there are some communities where celebrations of Beltane have survived into the present day. Most of these are more reminiscent of Victorian traditions than the traditions of the ancient Celts but they have a few of the old symbols in common. There is usually a Maypole but those performing the dances around it are usually children or young women. Brenau College, a women's college in Gainesville, Georgia still continues a May festival complete with Maypole, garlands of greenery bedecking the campus and the election of a May Queen.
Until the mid 1960's Maryville College in Tennessee held a May Day celebration. There was a Maypole and dance and a play based on the legend of Robin Hood, a hero who is often associated with Jack-in-the Green, the mythical symbol of the spirit of nature. Robin Hood plays and games featuring Robin Hood are part of traditional Beltane celbrations throughout England.
The early Celts saw nature as divine and marked the cycles of human life and death by stopping in their daily pursuits to observe with reverence the changing seasons. And so we do today, continuing traditions which reach back to the dawn of human life. It is a simple thing to stop and observe the day, to wash our face in the May Morning dew, to bring some flowers and greenery into the house, and to be aware, for a while, of how we fit into the natural world.