Beltaine - Part Three

May Day Customs

May Day or Beltaine has been celebrated in a variety of ways throughout Great Britain. May Poles and dances are the most copmmon features. In Ireland, however, May Bushes were more common than May Poles. Yet both countries enjoyed the concept called "Going-a-Maying."

Going-a-Maying

The same type of specificity applies to the concept of “Going-a-Maying". Beltaine has always been a time associated with flowers and other green and coloured shoots from earth. Rowan branches, gathered the day of or the night before, were hung onto doors. Flowers decorated "sacred" wells. This was a tradition that fit into both Christian and pagan concepts. In County Down, Ireland, flowers were to be gathered before sunset on May Eve, while in other places Mayflowers were gathered before dawn.

The Licentious Gathering of Flowers

In the 16th and 17th century, the clergy complained about the licentious practices of men and women, boys and girls that accompanied such visits to the woods and fields. This was, however, more common in England than Ireland. Throughout the isles, however, Garlands were hung over the doors of barns and homes and flowers were strewn across thresholds, on doorsteps, and upon the roofs of byres, barns, pigsties, and dwellings. Flowers decorated both animals and people - hung around their necks and woven into flowing human hair and animal tails.

Count Kilkenny Customs

Perhaps County Kilkenny retained some of the clearest pagan aspects of their past when celebrating Beltaine. Rowan brooms and agricultural implements and seeds were carried May Eve at sunset around the farm. The procession, which included the farmer, his wife and family, would stop at convenient stations on the farm property. The people involved would then turn to face the four cardinal points, beginning with east. A ceremony would take place involving the digging of sod, the breaking of the soil into fine parts and the planting of the seed. The family would then move on to the next point and repeat the process. The early Romans had a similar ceremony Terminalia occurring at the end of February. However, it is their Parilia festival in April that blends summer and spring rites as well as a common May theme found among the Celts - washing in May dew, decorating with flowers, and making a special fire. Parilia took place around April 21.

Conclusion

Beltaine is indeed a festival worth celebrating. It is one rich and varied in tradition. The Christian church could never successfully co-opt it into their own world view. Like Samhaine, it marks the
beginning of things. While Samhaine heralds the darkness, Beltaine cries out that light and love and life are back on earth. As such, it demands celebrations of an earthy spirituality. So light the candles and the fires, call the piper and the fiddler and dance (in all the meanings of the word) your way into summer.

Basic Sources

Buchanan, R. H. “Calendar Customs. Part I. New Year's Day to Michaelmas," Ulster Folklife, 8 (1962), pp. 22-24

Green, Miranda J. The World of the Druids. London: Thames & Hudson,1997.

MacKillop, James. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pennick, Nigel. Sacred World of the Celts. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, Limited, 2000.

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