Beltane – the start of summer
Beltane is the second of four quarter days celebrated in the old pagan calendar and marked the beginning of summer, in particular turning cattle out into the fields, after overwintering in the barn. Beltane, better known now as Mayday, is celebrated on May 01, and there are certain associated traditions that differ a little throughout the Celtic Nations. Ireland, famed for green grass perfect for raising cattle, has its own traditions that have a background in dairy (specifically butter) production.
In times past, not so much was known about the effect that a change in diet or medical conditions could have on cattle, so any reduction in milk production, or butter failing to churn, was treated with great suspicion.
To protect cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth special rituals were performed. Beltane is particularly associated with fire, and special fires that were lit at midnight on the 30th April, these were thought to have special protective powers, including the flames the smoke and the ash. People and their cattle would walk around fires or between two bonfires, and sometimes leaping over the flames or embers.
Ordinarily one of the skills that an Irish woman was expected to have would be the ability to manage the fire in the hearth. Burning mostly peat, it was important to be able to regulate both how hot the fire burnt and how much smoke it gave off. This was important in managing fuel, but also in cooking, since with no ovens, almost all cooking happened over the fire. A black smoky fire was no good for cooking, as the smoke would affect the taste of the food.
Keeping the fire lit overnight, so that you didn’t have to start from scratch the next day was also regarded as critical knowledge. Only an exceptionally slovenly woman would let her fire go out.
To keep a peat fire going you need a good supply of ash and some fresh fuel and red embers.
Rake the fire down so that the embers are lying flat, put a number of fresh, preferably damp peat on top (to make a black fire) then cover the lot in your old ash. This is called ‘banking the fire in’. Depending on your skill, by regulating the oxygen supply and the fuel, this can keep the fire going not just overnight but possibly for a full day afterwards.
The exception to the rule falls on 1st of May when all fires were expected to be extinguished. Any sensible homemaker certainly didn’t want smoke visible in her chimney on that morning, lest the Butter Witch saw it, came in through the chimney and stole your butter.
Keeping the fire unlit was just the start, it was believed that witches couldn’t cross water, so households would lay water loving plants across every threshold, mostly this would be Marsh Marigold, but other water loving plants could be used in a pinch. Whether this was to confuse the witch into thinking there was water here, or the plants had some mystical property of their own, growing as they did with roots under water, is now lost to time.
It was important not to miss anywhere, so flowers were laid on the doorstep, on every windowsill and by the hearth so prevent a sneaky witch gaining access by an alternative route.
Having doused the fire in the hearth, it would then be re-lit after 12 noon from the Beltane bonfire, and our erstwhile housewife could now engage in a bit of merriment in the form of a community feast. Hopefully, by this point she would have managed to be free of the Butter Witch’s power, but she had one more responsibility before she was out of the woods.
All quarter days; Imbrolic, Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain, and daily at dusk and dawn were times and dates associated with the aos si, known simply as ‘The Folk’ or later as the Tuatha Dé Danann (people of the Goddess Danu). Great care was taken not to disturb or upset them, and on Beltane a portion of the feast was sectioned off and offered to them.
If you looked after your relationship with The Folk, you might occasionally ask a favor of them and Beltane was a good time to do this at a May Bush: a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons or even shells. You would make your wish, then tie a ribbon or similar gift to the fairy thorn, and hope for the best. As an early beauty treatment, Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.
Many of these customs are not confined to Ireland, but they do change slightly according to local traditions. Where are you reading this, and what are the local traditions associated with Mayday where you are from?