by Samantha Helgeson
It’s finally starting to feel warmer out, with the last whispers of winter melting away, and you know what that means…. warm summer days, an abundance of nature, good food, and celebrations!
When the words “pagan celebration” are thrown around, most people typically imagine a festival involving some form of a maypole, flowers, dancing, and a bonfire. All of which can be traditionally associated with May Day.
After the spring equinox but before the summer solstice, many Pagans observe May Day celebrations, one of which is Beltane.
The word Beltane, or Bealtaine, is derived from Old Irish and means “bright fire” or “shining fire.” Historically, Beltane was recognized throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. It falls on May 1st (in the Northern Hemisphere) and is a time where people celebrate the return of summer and welcome all the joy that summer brings. The Celts honoured the gods through offerings and herded cattle through the smoke of balefires to promote health and fertility. The lighting of Beltane fires was prevalent in Scotland and Ireland, and cattle would be driven around the fires. People would dance around and jump over to purify themselves and promote fertility. Smoke and ashes from Beltane fires were considered sacred, and ashes were sprinkled over livestock, crops, and homes to ensure good luck in the coming year. Traditionally Beltane has been a time to celebrate the fertility of the land and is the time to plant and sow seeds. Abundance, fertility, and fire are all intertwined in this celebration of the land.
Different forms of May celebrations promoting abundance, fertility, good luck, and health have been observed in various countries.
The Greeks had their own May celebrations, although they were nearer to the end of the month. The Thargelia honours and pays homage to the divine twins, the god Apollo, and the goddess Artemis. It was a festival focused on agriculture, such as the first fruits and first breads from the new wheat. The festival spanned a few days, having specific days set aside for driving out bad things and then ushering in good things. People would clean and purify themselves on one day, and the next would bring offerings. Offerings were also made to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest.
The Goddess Floralia – Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Romans celebrated the first few days of May with the festival of flowers – Floralia –which consisted of gathering flowers, singing, dancing, plays and theatre, and lots of sex. Floral wreaths and flowers were worn in the hair, similar to participants in modern May Day celebrations. There was also a fire festival celebration around the same time in honour of the fertility goddess Bona Dea held by Roman women. Women hoping to conceive would make an offering or sacrifice to Bona Dea to become pregnant.
In northern Europe and Scandinavia, people celebrate Walpurgis Night. There is a lot of lore and history surrounding this festival. Events take place the night of April 30th and continue into May 1st. According to Norse Paganism, Walpurgisnacht – April 30th – is considered by some as the day Odin died. He hung on Yggdrasil for nine days to understand the deeper magic of runes, and when he finally succeeded, he died. The light of the world was lost until at midnight, he was reborn. Then May 1st arrives – May Day. This is a day where the Norse goddess Freyja, and other minor love goddesses, are celebrated through merrymaking, maypoles, dancing, drinking, and bonfires.
Mayday in 1907 in Maryland, USA – Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In Germanic traditions and folklore, this night – April 30th – was associated with witches. This was a night where witches and other evil entities roam the land. People used to keep the evil forces at bay by dressing up in costumes, playing pranks, and making loud noises. They would also leave out offerings. On May 1st, a maypole would be put up, and people would celebrate spring’s reawakening of fruitfulness through singing, dancing, and ceremonial planting of trees. People would make wreaths, hang ribbons, and play games.
Similarly, in Sweden, the main traditions on this night were to light large bonfires, sing folk songs, and collect greens and branches from the woods to adorn houses. It was also a time to keep evil forces at bay. In modern times May 1st is a holiday in Sweden, so the merrymaking can go well into the night.
There are also some Christian-based origins of Walpurgis Night, which you can read here, as I won’t be getting into them.
Regardless of which belief or path you follow, May, 1st is a time for ushering in summer and celebrating the flowering of life! It is the perfect time to focus on abundance, fertility, and growth. Take some time to immerse yourself in nature, spend time with people you love, explore your sexuality, and celebrate the coming of summer.