The celebration held on the first day of May is one of the quintessential Celtic "holidays". The Celtic name for the holiday was Beltane, variously Bealtaine, or Bhealltainn. In the northern Germanic regions the evening before the first of May was celebrated as the Walpurgisnacht. The Catholic Church renamed the day Roodmas. In America, the holiday was known simply as MayDay.
The day was celebrated as the first true day of spring, and the customs associated with the day, that were to be perpetuated throughout history, tended to be ones that emphasized the ideas of birth and renewal of life after the dead of winter.
The name Beltane is believed, by some, to derive from the "balefire" that was lit on the eve of the first day of May. Others claim the name derives from the Irish god of death, Beltene. The Welsh god, Beli, is another good candidate for the source of the name. And then, there are the Celtic fire god, Belios (variously, Belanus), and the Phoenician Baal.
John Watkinson published his book,A Philosphical Survey Of The South Of Ireland, In A Series Of Letters in 1778. In that volume, he noted:
The first of May is called, in the Irish language, La Beal-tinne; that is, the day of Beal's fire. Vossius says, it is well known, that Apollo was called Belinus; and for this he quotes Herodian, and an inscription at Aquileia, Apollini Belino. The gods of Tyre were Baal, Ashtaroth, and all the Host of Heaven, as we learn from the frequent rebukes given to the back-sliding Jews for following after Sidonian idols: and the Phoenician Baal, or Baalam, like the Irish Beal or Bealin, denotes the Sun, as Asmaroth does the Moon.
The name Walpurgisnacht, in the Germanic regions, is believed to derive from Walburga, the goddess, "Mother Earth".
During the Medieval Ages, the Catholic Church renamed the festival Roodmas and attempted to pursuade the common people to substitute the cross (i.e. the "rood") for the May Pole.
The spelling of the name Bealtaine comes from Irish Gaelic, while the Scottish Gaelic variation is Bealtuinn.
The ancient Roman festival of Floralia was perhaps the forerunner of the Beltane celebrations. Floralia was dedicated to the goddesses Flora and Maia. Floralia was celebrated during the last week of the month we know as April, ending on the first day of the next month, which was given the name "May" in honor of Maia. Floralia, itself, is believed to have evolved from simple events in which young women would dance around a living tree in the belief that it would improve the fertility of both the crops and village-folk. During the Floralia festival, garlands and wreaths comprised of flowers and other greens would be created and carried through villages in processions that ended at some garden or clearing. There, the wreaths would be hung on the tops of pole set in the ground and the garlands would be wrapped around the poles. It is believed that this practice of the Romans was adopted by the Celts and thusly spread across what is today continental Europe and into the British Isles. The Romans dedicated the decorated poles to their goddess Maia, while the Celts dedicated theirs to the goddess Flora.
There are others who maintain that the May Pole is derived from the Phrygian pine tree of Attis which was carried in processions dedicated to the goddess Cybele.
From ancient times until the recent past (as late as the 1960s in the United States of America), dancing around the May Pole was a centerpiece of the holiday celebrations. Young maidens dressed in a myriad of colorful dresses would take hold of equally colorful ribbons attached to the top of a pole set up for the occasion. They would dance around the pole, performing what was known as "morris dances", some going clockwise while others going in a counter-clockwise (or widdershins) direction. Through their dancing they would braid the colorful ribbons around the pole.
The May Pole was consecrated to the Goddess of Flowers. Philip Stubbs, a Puritan writing in the latter part of the 16th Century, published (in the year 1585) a book, Anatomie of Abuses, wherein he described the setting of the May Pole:
But their cheefest jewell they bring from thence is their Maie poole, whiche they bring home with greate veneration, as thus: - They have twentie or fourtie yoke of oxen, every oxe havyng a sweete nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tippe of his hornes, and these oxen drawe home this Maie poole (this stinckyng idoll rather), which is covered all over with flowers and hearbes, bounde rounde about with stringes, from the top to the bottome, and sometyme painted with variable colours, with twoo or three hundred men, women, and children followyng it with greate devotion. And thus beyng reared up, with handkerchiefes and flagges streamyng on the toppe, they strawe the grounde aboute, binde greene boughes about it, sett up sommer haules, bowers, and arbours, hard by it. And then they fall to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce aboute it, as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their idolles, whereof this is a perfect patterne, or rather the thyng itself.
Mathew Stevenson, in the year 1661 published a book, Twelve Moneths, in which he noted: The tall young oak is cut down for a May-pole, and the frolick fry of the town prevent the rising of the sun, and with joy in their faces and boughs in their hands, they march before it to the place of erection.
As just noted, Stevenson stated the May Pole was an oak. But other authors claimed that the May Pole was to come from a birch tree or a hawthorn. Some claims have also been made that the village Yule log was re-purposed to become the May Pole.
There, of course, were some who saw in the May Pole, the remnants of idol worship by the Children of Israel while Moses was on Mount receiving the commandments from God. John Northbrooke, a minister, published a treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes With Other Idle Pastimes in the year 1577. In it he railed: What adoe make our yong men at the time of May? Do they not use night-watchings to rob and steale yong trees out of other men's grounde, and bring them into their parishe, with minstrels playing before: and when they have set it up, they will decke it with floures and garlands, and daunce rounde (men and women togither, moste unseemly and intolerable, as I have proved about the tree, like unto the children of Israell that daunced about the golden calfe that they had set up.
The dancing around the May Pole often ended with the crowning (with a wreath of flowers and greens) of one of the young ladies as the "Queen of the May", who would preside over the rest of the festivities.
John Brand, in his Observations Of The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, commented on John Cleland, in his Specimen of an Etimological Vocabulary, or, Essay, By means of the Analitic Method, to Retrieve the Antient Celtic. By the Author of a Pamphlet entitled, The Way to Things by Words, and to Words by Things, published in 1768 in London, in order to give an explanation of the source of the May Pole in the May Day celebrations:
We gather from him that our ancestors held an anniversary assembly on May-day, and that the column of May (whence our May-pole) was the great standard of justice in the Ey-commons, or Fields of May. Here it was that the people, if they saw cause, deposed or punished their governors, their barons, and their kings. The judge's bough or wand (at this time discontinued, and only faintly represented by a trifling nosegay), and the staff or rod of authority in the civil and in the military (for it was the mace of civil power, and the truncheon of the field-officers), are both derived from hence. A mayor, he says, received his name from this May, in the sense of lawful power; the crown, a mark of dignity and symbol of power, like the mace and sceptre, was also taken from the May, being representative of the garland or crown, which when hung on the top of the May or pole, was the great signal for convening the people; the arches of it, which spring from the circlet and meet together at the mound or round bell, being necessarily so formed, to suspend it to the top of the pole. The word May-pole, he observes, is a pleonasm; in French it is called singly the Mai.
In 1644, the Long Parliament of England passed an Ordinance against the erection of May Poles: And because the prophanation of the Lord's Day hath been hertofore greatly occasioned by May-poles, (a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstitition and wickednesse,) the Lords and Commons do further order and ordain that all and singular May-poles, that are or shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed by the constables, borsholders, tything-men, petty constables, and churchwardens of the parishes, when the same shall be; and that no May-pole shall be hereafter set up, erected, or suffered to be within this kingdom of England, or dominion of Wales. The said officers to be fined five shillings weekly till the said May-pole be taken downe. Apparently the fine tacked on at the end was to discourage the local governmental officials from "looking the other way".
On the eve before Beltane, bonfires would be lit on mountaintops to herald the holiday's arrival. The fire would be lit in an oak branch. The method of generating the Beltane fire was to place a branch of oak, preferably one that had been cut from the tree a couple months prior to the Beltane. A hole would be bored into the oaken branch with a hand drill and, even after the hole was finished, the drill would be furiously turned within the hole so that it caused friction to generate sparks. Agaric, a species of fungal mushroom that was found growing on the fallen branches of birch trees, would be placed on the sparks and would burst into flames. The fire would take hold of the oak branch and then spread to other branches added to the bonfire.
Farmers would drive their cows between two bonfires in the belief that they would be fruitful during the coming year.
After midnight, young people and children would take lit sticks from out of the bonfire to light their way into a nearby forest. There they would gather twigs from the trees and any flowering plants they could find. These would be carried home and placed on windowsills or strewn in the doorways.
Home fires that were kept going through the winter were extinguished on the last day of April, and on May 1st new fires were lit from the Beltane bonfires. The ashes from the bonfires, after they had burnt down, would be spread over the fields to bless and protect the crops that would soon be growing there. [Of course, the farmers of ages past did not know that the nitrogen-rich ashes would be beneficials to their crops.]
In his book, Stubbs noted:
Against Maie, every parishe, towne, and village, assemble themselves together, bothe men, women, and children, olde and yong, even all indifferently: and either goying all together, or devidyng themselves into companies, they goe some to the woodes and groves, some to the hilles and mountaines, some to one place, some to another, where they spende all the night in pastymes, and in the mornyng they returne, bringing with them birch, bowes, and braunches of trees to deck their assemblies withall.
It was told, by the older folk, that if a young lady or a young lad had freckles on her or his face, which was a cause for embarrassment, she or he should get up early on May Day, and without speaking a single word to anyone, go outside and gather dew from the grass in her or his hands. Then she or he should splash the May Day dew onto the face where the freckles lie. If the young lady or lad truly believes that the freckles will disappear - they surely will. But if doubt exists in the mind of the lady or lad, they will be doomed to wear the freckles for another year. It might be noted that the Romans believed that the dew fell from the moon during the night.
The Irish folk would gather boughs from evergreen trees and nail them to their farmhouse doors on May Day in the hopes that their cows would provide abundant quantities of milk in the coming year.
No account of the Beltane would be complete without noting the fertility charged nature of the holiday. The austerity of the long harsh winters was hard on the peasants of the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe and on into the Colonial Period in America. When spring finally arrived, the people were ready to celebrate their freedom from the bondage of the cold. The Beltane festivities gave them license to rid themselves of their inhibitions, and expel some of their pent-up sexual energy.
Because of the non-religious nature of the activities of the holiday, May Day celebrations were banned in Great Britain by the Puritan government under Oliver Cromwell, only returning after the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the early 1660s. Puritans in the Colonies likewise banned the May Day celebrations. Even in the year 1660 note was made of a May Pole being struck down by Governor Endicott and predominantly Puritan militiamen at the Massachusetts village of Merrymount.
As is the case with many other holidays, certain food and drink are associated with the holiday of Beltane. Many of the food dishes and drinks that have been traditionally been enjoyed by celebrants of the Beltane or May Day are included in the recipes that follow.
a bottle of white wine
1/2 cup brandy
6 to 12 fresh strawberries
a couple woodruff leaves
a handfull of borage blossoms
Slice or dice the strawberries and place them in a large, lidded glass container.
Crush by hand the woodruff leaves and add them to the strawberries.
Mix and then pour the wine and brandy over the strawberries and woodruff leaves; place the lid over the container; and place the container in a cool place for a couple hours.
Just before serving, drop a handfull of purplish pink borage blossoms into the container. Do not cut or crush the blossoms. After the color drains from the blossoms, leaving them white, the May Wine is ready to be drank.
3-3/4 cup milk
9 egg yolks
1-1/2 cups sugar
3 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
3 cups hazelnuts (shelled, blanched and crushed)
Sprinkle the gelatine over the 1/2 cup of cold water in a metal container. Let the gelatin dissolve on its own for about three minutes, and then place the container into a pan of water. Place the pan on a stove and apply heat to it. Stir the gelatin until it dissolves completely.
Remove the pan from the heat and set aside. The container holding the gelatine dissolved in water should remain in the pan so that it keeps warm as the next ingredients are prepared.
Combine the crushed hasel nuts and milk in a 6-quart saucepan. Heat, and stir constantly until bubbles form around the edge of the pan. Then remove from the heat.
Beat the egg yolks and sugar together by hand with a whisk in a mixing bowl for 3 or 4 minutes until the yolks are thick.
Continue to beat the egg yolks and sugar mixture while adding the hot milk with crushed hasel nuts. Then pour the custard mixture into the saucepan and place on the stove to heat.
Cook the mixture at low heat, stirring constantly. It should thicken enough to coat a spoon heavily. -Important- Do not let the custard come to a boil, because it might curdle.
When the mixture is sufficiently thickened, remove the saucepan from the heat. To the mixture add the dissolved gelatin and the vanilla extract.
Transfer the custard mixture to a glass mixing bowl and let it cool to room temperature.
Add the cream to a large, chilled bowl, and using a whisk or an electric beater set at slow speed, beat it until it holds soft peaks
Fill a large bowl with crushed ice and place the bowl containing the custard into it.
Stir the custard with a metal spoon until it is firm but not set. If any lumps are present, beat thoroughly with a wire whisk.
Pour the whipped cream over the custard, and with a rubber spatula fold them together gently but thoroughly.
Hold a silver token over the bowl, saying as you do this: "Queen of Darkness, honor us this night with thy blessing." Then let the token fall into the bowl.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least three hours. This amount will serve thirteen nicely.
NOTE: If you cannot buy blanched hazelnuts, drop shelled nuts into a pan of water and boil them briskly for 2 minutes. Drain the hazelnuts in a sieve, and with a small, sharp knife peel them while they are still hot.
1-1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
2-1/2 cup sweet white wine
1/2 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
In a bowl, beat the eggs thoroughly, then set aside.
Boil the sugar, cinnamon, cloves and wine together for about 5 minutes. Then set aside to cool.
Remove the cinnamon stick and cloves.
Press the beaten eggs through a strainer and pour into the sugar and wine mixture. Blend well.
Pour the mixture into custard cups and set them in a baking pan. Fill the pan with boiling water to a level of about one inch.
Place the baking pan in the oven and bake for 55 minutes or until the puddings have set.
4 ounces of medium oatmeal
1 pinch salt
2 pinches baking soda
2 teaspoons melted fat (preferably bacon drippings)
3/4 tablespoons hot water
Mix most of the oatmeal, salt and baking soda in a bowl.
Pour the melted fat into the center of the mixture, then using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir the mixture thoroughly.
Continue stirring and add the water, a little at a time, until a stiff paste forms.
Spread additional oatmeal onto a work surface, and turn the mixture onto it.
Working quickly before the paste becomes unmanageable, divide the dough into two parts
Roll one half of the dough into a ball and knead it, adding loose oatmeal as necessary to keep it from sticking to your hands.
Using a roller, roll the dough ball out to about 1/4 inch thick.
Choose a plate or other round object that is slightly smaller than a frying pan that will be used, and place it over the rolled out dough. Cut around the object, and then cut the circle of dough into quarters.
Into the frying pan that is lightly greased, place the four quarters of the dough, and place on the stove at medium heat.
Fry the quartered oatcake for a few minutes - until the edges begin to curl. Then turn the pieces and fry on the other side for a few minutes.
If you wish to bake the oat cakes in the oven, place the pieces on a baking sheet and with the oven set at 375 degrees F, bake for approximately 30 minutes (until the edges start to brown).
a quantity of fresh strawberries (not frozen and thawed)
1 bottle dry Vermouth
This is a very simple recipe.
Place the strawberries in a bowl, then pour the Vermouth over them.
Cover the bowl and place it in a cool place or refrigerator overnight.