Beltane, Samhain: Wiccans and Pagans mark May Day festival

Fire with dancers in middle of crowd, nighttime

The Beltane Fire Festival at Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Martin Robertson, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, MAY 1: Enjoy the beauty of spring and summer today! May 1 is the Pagan and Wiccan festival of Beltane, a joyous festival that celebrates the renewal and bounty of nature. Beltane (or Samhain, in the southern hemisphere) falls on a date approximately halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.

Original Beltane festivals date back thousands of years to ancient Ireland and Scotland, and today, a revival of these ancient rites is bringing Celtic people back to their roots. Dancing around a Maypole might not be a feasible activity for most people today, but everyone can rejoice in spring by taking a nature walk, placing fresh flowers around the home or eating traditional foods like oats and dairy.

Ancient Beltane rituals often revolved around fertility; as time progressed, enormous community bonfires on Beltane Eve signified purity and the coming warmth and light of summer months. Early season herbs, such as juniper, were often thrown onto fires to add blessing to the smoke, and pagans would often run between two fires for luck. Wiccans of today mark Beltane as one of eight sabbats, or holidays.

The greatest Beltane Eve festival today is the Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival, an extravagant event on Calton Hill in Scotland that attracts approximately 15,000 people annually. ( is the official site.) The Beltane Fire Festival began during the night of April 30 in 1988, and has since provided spectators with a wide array of performances, hypnotic drum beats and more, by firelight.

Beltane: Welcome summer the ancient Celtic way

MONDAY, MAY 1: An ancient Gaelic festival ushering in the joy of summer blossoms across Ireland and Scotland, parts of Europe and in Wiccan and Pagan communities worldwide, as Beltane. (In the Southern Hemisphere, Wiccans and Pagans mark Samhain.)

Enormous bonfires light a night sky that paints the backdrop for elaborate costumes, reenactments, dancing, fire-jumping and a revival of ancient rituals. Edinburgh now draws tens of thousands of attendees annually for its Beltane Fire Festival, which boasts hundreds of volunteers and performers; in some areas of Scotland and Ireland, remnants of old Beltane customs still remain. Halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, Beltane has always ranked among the most significant of pagan festivals.

As usual, some of the most interesting Beltane headlines are coming from Scotland. This year, for example, the Herald and other Scottish news sources are reporting on a special “family day” program that’s been added to the huge Edinburgh festival.


The earliest Irish literature mentions Beltane, and for the pastoral Celts this festival marked a key time of year. In daylight hours, cattle were adorned in flowers and driven to summer pastures; at nighttime, people and cattle walked or leapt between bonfires in a cleansing and protective ritual. During this sacred time of year, early pagan customs were meant to protect crops, cattle and people from disease and other forces of nature. (Wikipedia has details.) A home’s doors and windows were decorated with May flowers, and holy wells were visited. The morning dew of Beltane was believed to hold unique qualities that conserved youthfulness and beauty. Candles and hearth fires that had been put out on Beltane Eve were re-lit with the Beltane bonfire.

As Samhain commemorates the dark half of the year, Beltane celebrates the light half of the year. New life springs forth, the sun returns in full strength and energy is abundant. In centuries past, both Beltane and Samhain were regarded as days of “no time”—that is, when veils between this world and the other world are thinnest. With this belief, pagans would protect themselves and their homes from spirits and mischievous faeries with rituals and natural objects, such as rowan branches, on the outside of their homes. Dancing would commence throughout the countryside and, following a promiscuous night in the woods, young people would gather in the morning to weave the ribbons of the Maypole. Feasts ensued, which were often accompanied by athletic tournaments, costumed performances, an elected king and queen and the decoration of flower wreaths and garlands.

BELTANE: Fires, flowers and spring dew mark Pagan festival

WEDNESDAY, MAY 1: It’s May Day! Gather ‘round the May Pole and roll in the morning dew for the ancient celebration of spring. In Gaelic history, today is Beltane—otherwise known as the halfway point between spring equinox and summer solstice. Although many traditional May Day festivities had ceased by the mid-20th century, there has been an upsurge among modern Pagans. One of the biggest is the Beltane Fire Festival of Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland, which has been drawing crowds since 1988 for a rebirth of the famed nighttime ritual of Beltane bonfires.

Ancient Beltane events were performed with reverence for the spirits and faeries of springtime. In Celtic times, customs began the night before May 1, with enormous bonfires believed to hold protective powers. (Wikipedia has details.) Cattle and other livestock were driven between two bonfires, men leapt over the fires and the ashes were sprinkled on homes and crops, all in efforts to ensure a plentiful, healthy and fruitful year. In Celtic times, fertility rituals also were practiced around May Day.

On May 1, Celts collected the “magical” May morning dew for auspicious washing and drinking. Decorated poles and bushes were decorated for dancing, homes were adorned with yellow May flowers and women braided wildflowers into their hair. To ensure a bountiful dairy season, yellow flowers were sometimes made into bouquets and garlands and fastened to cows. In Dublin and Belfast, May bushes were decorated by an entire neighborhood, and neighborhoods competed to present the most beautiful May bush! Create your own May Day crafts with help from Mother Nature Network. Oatmeal cakes, honey and dairy foods were often consumed on Beltane and May Day.

Today’s Wiccans mark Beltane as one of the yearly Sabbats, or seasonal festivals.

In Hawaii, May Day has been known as “Lei Day” since 1928, in reverence for Hawaiian culture and, especially, the lei.