Also: May Day, Walpurgis, Roodmas
Beltane, celebrated at the peak of spring around early May, is one of the four main fire festivals native to Celtic culture. The other festivals, commonly referred to in Neopaganism as the "Greater Sabbats" are Imbolc, at the peak of winter, Lammas, at the peak of summer, and Samhain at the peak of autumn. Beltane is usually celebrated on May 1st and the night prior to it, although some celebrate the festival on its alternate date, astrologically determined by the sun's reaching 15-degrees Taurus.
In Irish mythology, the beginning of the summer season for the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians started at Bealtaine. Great bonfires would mark a time of purification and transition, heralding in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, and were accompanied with ritual acts to protect the people from any harm by Otherworldly spirits, such as the Aos Sí. Like the festival of Samhain, opposite Beltane on 31 October Beltane was also a time when the Otherworld was seen as particularly close at hand. Excavations at Uisnech in the 20th century provided evidence of large fires taking place.
In Irish Gaelic, the month of May is known as Mí Bhealtaine or Bealtaine, and the festival as Lá Bealtaine ('day of Bealtaine' or, 'May Day').
Since the early 20th century it has been commonly accepted that Old Irish Bel(l)taine is derived from a Common Celtic *belo-te(p)niâ, meaning "bright fire" (where the element *belo- might be cognate with the English word bale [as in 'bale-fire'] meaning 'white' or 'shining'; compare Anglo-Saxon bael, and Lithuanian/Latvian baltas/balts, found in the name of the Baltic; in Slavic languages byelo or beloye also means 'white', as in Беларусь (White Russia or Belarus) or Бе́лое мо́ре [White Sea]). A more recent etymology by Xavier Delamarre would derive it from a Common Celtic *Beltinijā, cognate with the name of the Lithuanian goddess of death Giltinė, the root of both being Proto-Indo-European *gʷelH- "suffering, death".
In middle Europe, May 1st is celebrated as Walpurgisnacht, named after the English missionary Saint Walburga. As Walburga was canonized on 1st of May, she became associated with May Day, especially in the Finnish and Swedish calendars. The eve of May day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known as Walpurgisnacht ("Walpurga's night").
Fertility is the major theme of this festival, as it is a reflection of the fertility of the earth at this time of year. Maypoles, which are phallic symbols, are wrapped in ribbons through a weaving dance on this day.
Purification is another theme of this festival, and the fires associated with it. Saining, the process of ritually purifing something by exposing it to open flame, was common during this time in the form magnificent bonfires that are lept for luck, prosperity, and fertility. Saining also takes place with the livestock, which was traditionally driven between two bonfires to bless and protect them.
The bonfires hold the secondary role of "burning away" the last remenants of winter, that summer may come in. The old English round "Sumer Is Icumen In" is often sung with this in mind as the bonfires blaze high.
Sumer is Icumen in,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blows the mead,
And springs the wood anew;
Ewe bleats harshly after lamb,
Cows after calves make moo;
Bullock stamps and deer champs,
Now shrilly sing, cuckoo!
Wild bird are you;
Be never still, cuckoo!
Also on this day are parades with mummers in traditional roles such as the 'obby 'oss, the May Queen, and the Puck. The May Queen is chosen each year from the Maidens of the area to represent the Goddess in her youthful springtime aspect.
May bushes are decorated with eggs, ribbons, and garlands. These May bushes were usually the hawthorn, which blooms in May, and which is famously collected when "going a maying". May bushes gave way to may boughs, which are also of hawthorn. Usually bringing hawthorn indoors is considered bad luck, but it is worse luck to not "bring in the may" on this day!
Bannocks, which are fire-cooked oat cakes, are made an eaten in celebration of Beltane. These are known as belcakes. Morwynn of House Shadow Drake writes of their own family's bannock traditions (and includes a recipe!) here: http://www.shadowdrake.com/bannock.html
In addition to the promise of spring, and prognostication, other neopagan themes common to Beltane include the transformation of the Goddess from Maiden to Lover (this is often celebrated by enactment of the Great Rite in the fields) and the wooing of the sun God. These differ according to various traditions.
The Spiral Castle Tradition
In our tradition Beltane is one of the two times of year when we pay homage to Tubal Cain. This is Qayin in his fiery aspect, rising in the east. He is the Morning Star, the bringer of light and enlightenment to mankind.
The Spiral Castle is turned to face the East Gate, place of Fire, Spring has risen triumphant in our area of the country, and the Lord of the fiery forge of creation holds sway. The Wheel is turning to the bright promise of summer once again, and there is great rejoicing.
Beltane Chant (by Rudyard Kipling):
O do not tell the priests of our arts,
for they would call it sin!
We will be in the woods all night
A-conjuring conjuring summer in.
And we bring you good news by word of mouth.
For women, cattle, and corn:
The sun is coming up from the south,
By oak and ash, and thorn!
(Continue chanting 'by oak and ash and thorn')
Colors: Deep green, white, red, pink, orange, violet
Herbs: Mandrake, Damania, Basil, Patchouli, Violet, Vanilla, Rose, Frankincense, Lilac
Foods: pork, beef, red fruits, wine, mead, oat and barley pancakes