Beltane 2020: when is the Gaelic May Day festival - and blessings, rituals and Pagan origins explained

Plans for 2020 have been met with many cancellations, with major events including Glastonbury, the Olympics and the Euros all being forced to postpone

But while events may not have gone ahead as planned, there are some special days that can still be celebrated during lockdown - including Beltane.

What is Beltane?

Beltane is the Gaelic May Day festival and is most commonly celebrated on 1 May, around halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

Yellow May flowers were placed in doorways and windows during the 19th centuryYellow May flowers were placed in doorways and windows during the 19th century
Yellow May flowers were placed in doorways and windows during the 19th century
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The festival was historically widely observed throughout Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, and is one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh.

Beltane honours spring at its peak and looks forward to the beginning of summer.

It marks the return of fertility to the land when livestock would have been put out to pasture, celebrating the new life that will emerge as the seasons transition.

What rituals were observed?

Historically, rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage fertility and growth.

Beltane has been observed for centuries in Europe and is now embraced by pagans, who mark the occasion with the lighting of bonfires, dance and rituals.

The word ‘Beltane’ originates from the Celtic God ‘Bel’, which means ‘bright one’, and the Gaelic word ‘teine’, meaning ‘fire’.

Together the words make ‘bright fire’, which inspired the traditional lighting of bonfires to honour the sun.

Fire was considered a purifier and healer, and so communities would dance and jump around a bonfire in celebration, while farmers would also have driven their cattle between bonfires to cleanse them before putting them out into the fields.

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Ancient communities would also extinguish all household fires and light a new ‘neid fire’, which was thought to ward off disease from herds and flocks.

The neid fire would then have been used to relight fires in people’s homes, so as to connect the communities together.

Such gatherings would often be accompanied by a feast, while yellow May flowers, such as primrose, were placed in doorways and windows during the 19th century in Scotland and Ireland, perhaps because they evoked the colours of fire.

Loose flowers were sometimes made into bouquets and garlands, which would be fastened to cows and farming equipment, with such customs being observed across Europe on May Day.

People also used to visit holy wells during Beltane, with people leaving offerings and praying for good health.

Water drawn from a well on Beltane, along with morning dew, was thought to bring beauty and maintain use, with maidern washing their face with it to increase their sexual attraction.

What are the links to fertility?

The festival is also a celebration of fertility, with the spring and summer seasons being a time for new life to flourish.

It marked a time of courtship rituals and saw people jump the bonfire to purify, cleanse and bring fertility.

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Couples often jumped the bonfire together as a way to mark their pledge to each other.

Is Beltane still celebrated?

Beltane is traditionally celebrated on 1 May, although its observance had largely died out by the mid-20th century.

The custom has since been revived in some parts of the country, with the town of Peebles in the Scottish borders holiday a traditional week-long fair every year in June.

In Edinburgh, a Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year on the evening of 30 April on Calton Hill since 1988.

Inspired by the traditional Beltane, the modern festival incorporates art, myth and drama from world cultures and literature, and begins with a procession from the National Monument.

The festival was sadly cancelled this year due to the coronavirus outbreak, but the Beltane Fire Society organised a virtual celebration to honour the event instead.

People were encouraged to gather on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to mark the Celtic holiday, with the sharing of poems, pictures, audio and video that related to the event.

What are the other pagan festivals?

Beltane is one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh.

The festival of Samhain is observed after Beltane to mark the beginning of winter, on 1 November, with these two thought to have been the most important of the four festivals.