May Day or Beltane, while it may be translated to other cultures or traditions is based on Celtic history and traditions. In Celtic tradition, the two greatest festivals of the solar year are Samhain and Beltane, celebrations of death and rebirth, respectively. Love is in the air at Beltane. In traditional (Celtic) Wiccan rituals, we celebrate the union between the Great Mother and her young Horned God. Their coupling brings fresh new life on Earth.
Some form of this Great Rite is enacted on this sabbat in many modern pagan circles. The Great Rite symbolizes the sacred marriage and/or sexual union, of the Lord and Lady. Often the rite is performed symbolically by a male and female who place a knife (a phallic symbol) into a chalice (a female or yonic symbol). In Old Europe, whole villages would celebrate May Day by slipping away into the woods for indiscriminate sexual encounters. Any children conceived during this occasion were known as “merry-begots” and were considered children of the gods. These “greenwood marriages” were acts of sympathetic magick believed to have a positive effect on their crops, animals, and themselves.
Crop fertility was a strong theme at this sabbat. Besoms were ridden hobbyhorse-style through fields by women in symbolic fertility rites. Menstruating women ran and danced naked in the newly-sown fields. Cows were led to the fields to calve, and ritually consecrated chalices of sheep’s blood and milk were poured on the crops, as were ashes from the balefire.
The balefire, bonfire, or need-fire, is one of the oldest Beltane traditions. When lighting the fire, use nine sacred woods from the following list:
- grape vine
- mountain ash (rowan)
It was the ashes from these fires that were scattered in the fields as a fertility charm. Women wishing to conceive could tie a bag of the ashes around their necks. Traditionally, cattle and other animals were driven between two fires for protection, healing, and purification. Modern pagans can ritually purify tools or other things in the balefire. Jump the dying embers of the fire for summer blessings.
Another rich pagan tradition of Beltane (May Day) is the wrapping of the May Pole. In times past a pole was erected or a fir tree, stripped of all but its top branches, was used. On top of the pole which represents a phallus is placed a newly braided crown of flowers. Eight ribbons, twice as long as the pole and representing the eight sabbats are attached to the pole. Red and White are popular colors representing the God and Goddess. Men take up the red ribbons dancing counter-clockwise, and women the white dancing clockwise. The dancers weave over and under each other, braiding the ribbons around the pole, with the men going under first. Many times the dancers will have bells on their feet which ring in time to the rhythm of the music on each step. The wrapped pole represents the womb and the wreath which is allowed to descend the pole is the goddess.