Beltane (sometimes spelt Beltine or Beltaine) is the Gaelic and Celtic May Day festival. Usually celebrated between 30 April–1 May, (halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice), this year it falls on Thursday 1st May.
Beltane is a fire festival that celebrates of the coming of summer and the fertility of the coming year. The Celtic word ‘Beltane’ literally means ‘fires of Bel’.
Hopeful for a fruitful year for their families and fields, the Pagan Beltane celebrations use fire to cleanse and revitalise. They see flames as having purifying qualities for both the land and the people who live on it.
Ancient Beltane rituals involved people leaping over the Beltane fire to bring good fortune, fertility, and happiness through the coming year. Cattle were often passed between two fires, and the properties of the flame and the smoke were seen to ensure the fertility of the herd.
In its earliest times, Beltane also encouraged courting rituals, with young men and women collecting blossoms in the woods and lighting fires in the evening. It was hoped that these rituals would lead to marriages during the coming summer or autumn.
The largest Beltane celebrations in the UK today are held in Scotland. Fires are lit at night and festivities carry on until dawn to mark the start of summer.
On Calton Hill in Edinburgh, the evening begins with a procession to the top of the hill led by a man and a woman dressed up as the ancient God and Goddess of fertility and growth, the May Queen and the Green Man. Torchbearers carry purifying flames, and fire arches are used to represent the gateways between the earthly world and the spirit world.
The May Queen crowns the Green Man, and winter is officially brought to an end when the Green Man’s winter costume is taken from him and he is revealed to be wearing a spring costume beneath.
Beltane is brought to an end with wild dancing, after which the Green Man and the May Queen are married, and so springtime and summer can begin.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.