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Beltane, May Day, etc:
A Neopagan seasonal day of
celebration that welcomes
the arrival of the warm season:

a maypole 1 Maypole 2

Dancing around a maypole: a common activity at Beltane.

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While most people today observe four seasons each year, the ancient Celts -- who lived in what is now Western Europe, the UK and Ireland -- observed only two. They referred to the two as the warm and cold seasons. They celebrated Beltane (a.k.a. Beltain, Beltainne, Beltaine, Bealtaine, Beltany, May Eve, May Day, Valpurgis and Walpurgis Night) on MAY-5 at the start of their warm season. This was a particularly important day because the temperature was noticably warming up indicating a return of the growing season and the eventual harvesting of food crops.

In Ireland, Beltain is called Lį Bealtaine; in Scottish Gaelic Lą Bealltainn; in Manx Gaelic, Laa Boaltinn/Boaldyn; on the Isle of Man, Shenn do Boaldyn; and in Wales, Galan Mae.

Beltane is referred to as a "cross quarter day." Its location in the calendar is roughly half-way between the date of the Spring Equinox -- circa MAR-21 -- and the Summer Solstice -- circa JUN-21 (for the Northern Hemisphere).

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Multiple Dates for Beltane:

There are multiple traditions for the precise date of Beltain:

  • Astrological Beltane: This is about MAY-05, when the sun is at 15 degrees in the constellation Taurus, half way between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. It is sometimes called the "Old Beltane" or "Beltane Old Style" or "Beltane OS." It occurs this year on 2018-MAY-05 at 13:13 universal time (Greenwich UK), 09:13 Eastern Time, 03:13 in Paradise (a.k.a. Hawaii), and 18:43 hrs in India.

  • Astronomical Beltain: This is when the consellation Pleiades can be seen on the horizon at dawn.

  • Calendar Beltain: This is May Day or May-01.

  • Lunar Beltane: This is the day of the first full moon in May.

The Celts originally celebrated on MAY-05, Currently, it more commonly begins at moonrise on May Day Eve, April 30 -- a day of particular significance to Canadians because this is the final date for filing their personal income tax forms. Beltain continues into May Day, May 01. 11

Dates are offset six months in the Southern Hemisphere: Beltane in the Northern Hemisphere is observed at the same day in the Southern Hemisphere as the beginning of the cold season of Samhain/Deep Autumn.

A charming tradition was once held in parts of France. Young men who had been jilted by their former girlfriends would lie down in a field on May Day and pretend to sleep. If a young woman from the village is willing to marry one of them, she goes to the field and wakes him up with a kiss. If they both agree, then they go to the local inn, lead the dance there, and announce their engagement.

The name "Beltane" originated from Bel, the Celtic deity, and "teine" which is the Gaelic word for fire.

It was, and remains, a joyous celebration. Christina Aubin, posting on The Witches' Voice, eloquently writes:

"The beginning of summer heralds an important time, for the winter is a difficult journey and weariness and disheartenment set in. Personally one is tired down to the soul. In times past the food stocks were low; variety was a distant memory. The drab non-color of winter's end perfectly represents the dullness and fatigue that permeates on so many levels to this day. We need Beltane, as the earth needs the sun, for our very Spirit cries out for the renewal of summer jubilation." 13

As I update this essay a week before the Celtic Beltane in Canada -- across Lake Ontario from Rochester NY -- I looked at my front lawn this morning and was amazed at how green the grass has become -- seemingly overnight.

Centuries ago, followers of Celtic Pagan religions would light bonfires on nearby hill tops. They would extinguish the fires in their homes and relight them with fire that they brought from the main bonfire. People, with their cattle, would often walk around the bonfire or walk between two bonfires. They believed that this would provide them and their animals with good health during the following year.

Many Beltane observations include a Maypole as shown in the above images. This was traditionally a fir or birch tree cut on May Eve (APR-30) by young, unmarried males. The branches were removed, ribbons were attached to the pole top, and and it was placed in the town square. Sometimes, participants will dance around the maypole in the deosil direction (sun-wise; clockwise). Sometimes, the dancers will be divided by gender into two groups. The women form a circle and dance clockwise while the men form a second circle inside the women's circle and dance counter-clockwise. They intertwined the ribbons so that they wrapped around the poll -- starting at the top.

In olden times, young couples would often pair up after the dance was over and disappear into the woods. Early the next year, a number of babies would be born in the village who had been conceived on Beltane. They were called "Sons of Robin" after Robin Hood. That is the origin of the surname "Robinson," which happens to be the name of the author of this essay.

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Pagan religious celebrations have largely died out since the arrival of Christianity. However, Beltane is still widely celebrated enthusiastically by two groups:

  • Modern-day Wiccans and other Neopagans revived the celebration of the eight Sabbats during the late 20th century. Neopagans in the Northern Hemisphere generally observe Beltane from sunset on APR-30 to sunset on MAY-01. Some Neopagans prefer to observe the Sabbat on the day midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Still others celebrate it at the day of the full moon closest to this midway point.

In ancient times, Beltane was associated with the Great Wedding of the Goddess and God. It was a traditional time for a handfasting ritual, when a human couple would marry for a year and a day. At the end of this interval, they could choose to either part, or stay together. In modern times, Wiccan couples often marry -- hopefully for life -- in a handfasting ceremony that contains sufficient legal components so that it can be recognized and registered by the government as a marriage.

In the Southern Hemisphere Beltane is generally observed between sunset on OCT-31 to sunset on NOV-01. 3,4,5

  • Cultural Beltane celebrations are held in some countries. Perhaps the largest is the Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival held annually since 1988 on APR-30 in Scotland. 6 Over ten thousand people typically attend.

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The 2010 Beltane Festival in Ulster County, NY:

 7

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The 2011 Beltane celebration at Circle Sanctuary, in Barneveld WI .

Featured are the May Court, the Oak Apple Morris Dancers, and the Circle Sanctuary Community dancing the May Pole:

 8

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Related essays on this web site that you might find interesting:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Image source is unknown. In the original photograh, the dancers appear to be all dancing in the same direction -- counter-clockwise. So I reversed the image to show them dancing clockwise, which is the more likely direction.
  2. Photo by coriniaselberg; downloaded from Pixabay.com. CC0 Creative Commons
  3. Selana Fox, "Beltane Lore & Rites," Circle Sanctuary, 2017, at: https://www.circlesanctuary.org/
  4. "Beltane," The Goddess & The Green Man, Glastonbury UK, at: https://www.goddessandgreenman.co.uk/ They sell Beltane products at: https://www.goddessandgreenman.co.uk/
  5. Rowan Moonstone, "Beltane: Its History and Modern Celebration in Wicca in America," Sacred Texts, undated, at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/
  6. "Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival," at: https://edinburghfestival.list.co.uk/
  7. "Beltane - from morning to midnight," You Tube, 2010-AUG-09, at: https://youtu.be/
  8. "Beltane Sights and Sounds: Circle Sanctuary," You Tube, 2011-MAY-06, at: https://www.youtube.com/
  9. "Pagaian Cosmology: Samhain/Beltaine moment ... MAY-2018," Pagain.org. at: https://pagaian.org/
  10. "2018 Equinox, Solstice & Cross-Quarter Moments," Archaeostronomy, at: http://www.archaeoastronomy.com/
  11. "Beltane," The White Goddess, at: http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/
  12. "Annual Wiccan Holidays," Holiday Insights, at: http://www.holidayinsights.com/
  13. Christina Aubin, "Beltane -- Holiday Details and History," Witches' Voice, 2000-APR-30, at: http://www.witchvox.com/

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Copyright © 2017 & 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted on: 2017-APR-24
Latest update: 2018-APR-28

Author:
B.A. Robinson
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