Beltane is the Gaelic name for the month of May and the festival that takes place at the beginning of the month. Etymologically, the original Celtic word meant ‘bright fire’. It is the opposite of Samhain, which is in October, and the Celtic year was divided into the half that ends with Beltane and the half that ends with Samhain.
It is also the cross-quarter day marking half way between spring equinox and summer solstice, so to my mind, it’s the first day of summer. In the olden days it was the festival which marked the droving of cattle and sheep to pasture, bringing them out of their winter folds and barns.
In Celtic culture, and surviving into historical times in Ireland, the Beltane festival features the lighting of bonfires, often on high places. It would have been quite a sight in Iron Age Britain to stand in your hillfort and see the bonfires leaping skyward from all the others in view on the horizon, a unifying thing, perhaps, in an age of tribal division and conflict.
Two great fires were lit, to which were added fragrant woods such as juniper, and the cattle were driven between them in a rite of purification.
No doubt other folk survivals, such as decorating barns with May boughs and blossoming hawthorn, are rooted in the Iron Age. I was brought up under a prohibition never to bring ‘May’ (hawthorn) into the house because it was unlucky. This must have been the law of signatures still operating in the twentieth century, coming through from the fourteenth, being passed mother to daughter in unbroken continuity, for apparently the (rather wonderful, almondy) smell of May blossom was the odour of the plague.
Here in Oxford, May Day was revived in the nineteenth century, I believe. On May morning, we’ll all be up beforetimes and shall meet on the High at 6am for hymns sung from Magdalen College tower, after which students in formal suits and ballgowns will risk paraplegia by jumping from Magdalen bridge into the very shallow Cherwell. And then the fun begins with Jack o’ the Green – a walking bush – lurching up the High Street, followed by Morris dancers.
I love May Day. The evangelical Christians of our city hate it and have been known to blast out amplified metalhead music to drown out the bells of the Morris men.
The pubs and cafes are open and the aim is to get drunk by 9am. I usually pass on this, but never say no to a Full Works breakfast (anything fry-able piled high on your plate).
Actually, I haven’t been to a May Morning for some years, but I may do so tomorrow. There’s an alternative to the rather rowdy stuff going on in the city, and it features the papier mache bull that trundled past here yesterday, and all the middle-aged academics of North Oxford come out to have a pint of beer at the Anchor and to sing pagan hymns.
On the vast meadow opposite where we live, which has had continuous grazing for four thousand years, the young bullocks returned to their summer pasture a few weeks ago, arriving in big animal transporters that for once, mercifully, were not destined for the abattoir. The young bullocks spent all morning clattering down ramps and bellowing in the wide open space before them. Now they are roaming about in the far distance like bison. Happy Beltane, guys.