May 1 – Arrival of the Sun l Beltane

Maypole Dancing
Maypole Dancing
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The arrival of summer has been celebrated on May 1 in many countries in the north for 2000 years, since the iron age. The day has been associated with fun, revelry and fertility. 

Although actual summer starts in June, May 1st is celebrates spring at its peak, and the coming summer. Beltane or Beltain is the Gaelic May Day festival, most commonly held on 1 May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, it was widely observed by Celtic people throughout the British isles, especially Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man but also in England.

Beltane celebrates the union of the Goddess the goddess that presides over the changing of the seasons (May Queen) and the Green Man (who represents life that grows on Earth) – the coming together of male and female energies to create new life (basically a way to welcome the summer season and fair weather). It is associated with the Sun and healer god Bel or Belenus, (Celtic: possibly, Bright One), one of the most ancient and most widely worshipped of the pagan Celtic deities. Traditionally, fires were lit at Beltane to purify cattle and self, as well as to represent the Sun (the old Irish word tene means fire). 

According to Encyclopedia Britannica: Celtic people “divided the year into two main seasons. Winter and the beginning of the year fell on November 1 (Irish: Samain) and midyear and summer on May 1 (Irish: Beltaine). These two junctures were thought to be critical periods when the bounds between the human and supernatural worlds were temporarily erased; on May Eve witches and fairies roamed freely, and measures had to be taken against their enchantments.”

The flames, smoke and ashes of these special bonfires were deemed to have protective powers and people and their cattle would walk around or between them, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to supernatural beings.

A giant Wickerman was (and is) also burned (according to Julius Ceasar, the druids, who were priests of Celtic paganism sacrificed humans and animals by burning inside the wicker man).

 

 The burning of a 40ft wickerman at Butser Ancient Farm.

The burning of a 40ft wickerman at Butser Ancient Farm.

 

Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. This was also the time livestock were driven out to the summer pastures.

 

Morris dancers in the UK

Morris dancers in the UK

 

Other May Day traditions include people dancing around a maypole and in the UK there is also the tradition of Morris Dancing, which has been danced for hundreds of years, and passed down through the generations in the villages of rural England. Morris dancers wear different coloured clothes depending on the part of the country in which they dance.

On May Day, people used to cut down young trees and stick them in the ground in the village to mark the arrival of summer. They would dance around the poles to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of good weather that would mean planting could begin. The tallest maypole erected on the Strand in London in 1661 (143 ft high) was felled in 1717, when it was used by Newton to support Huygen’s new telescope.

In the medieval period, the rituals around Beltane were disapproved of by the Church and State in Britain. In the sixteenth century, there were riots when May Day celebrations were banned. Fourteen individuals involved in the riots were executed by hanging. King Henry VIII granted pardons to an additional 400 people who had been condemned to death. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans took over in 1645 after the English Civil War, May Day celebrations were banned. Like everything else that brought joy to people, they considered maypole dancing “a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness”. So they brought about legislation which ended village maypoles throughout the country.

In modern times the festival was revived by a group of people in Edinburgh in 1988 and has now expanded to include over 300 voluntary collaborators and perfomers. In its modern iteration, on the eve of May 1st, a group of experienced festival volunteers known as the “Blues” create a sacred space for the community to share traditional stories of the May Queen and the death and rebirth of the Green Man.

The Blues are a group of elder volunteers who have been involved with the festival for many years. Their long-standing participation has imbued them with deep knowledge and respect within the community.

The Blues lead the ritual in which the May Queen comes to life. They serve as her guides as she ushers the Green Man through his symbolic death and rebirth as she gives him life energy, after which they rule the summer together. This powerful ceremony culminates in the lighting of the Beltane fire, signifying the arrival of summer.

I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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