Beltane is one of the four ancient Gaelic seasonal festivals. The others are Samhain (November 1), Imbolc (February 1), and Lughnasadh (August 1).
Beltane is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology. It marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. The sî (pronounced SHEE); often described as 'the spirits' or 'the fairies', were thought to be especially active at Beltane (just as at Samhain) and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease the sí. Beltane was a "spring time festival of optimism" during which "fertility ritual again was important, perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun”.
Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire, or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. Many customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe, including the May Pole.
The practice had become increasingly popular throughout the ensuing centuries, with the maypoles becoming "communal symbols" that brought the local community together.
The addition of intertwining ribbons seems to have been influenced by a combination of theatrical fashion and visionary individuals such as John Ruskin in the 19th century. Pairs of boys and girls (or men and women) stand alternately around the base of the pole, each holding the end of a ribbon. They weave in and around each other, boys going one way and girls going the other and the ribbons are woven together around the pole until the dancers meet at the base.
We normally encourage our listeners to find us on Facebook for links to more information. However, this Saturday, May 5th at the Charles Brown Ice House on Sand Island in Bethlehem, there will be an opportunity to participate in a MayPole dance. A number of area artists and arts groups have collaborated on the event. For more information on the event, visit http://www.cambiata.org/For the Celtic Cultural Alliance, I’m Silagh White. Slainté