The 1st of May is a global celebration in one guise or other. I’ve already dealt with 2 important celebrations, International Workers’ Day (throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and beyond) http://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-workers-day/ and May Day which is mostly an English custom http://www.bookofdaystales.com/may-daymay-morning/ . It is also Walpurga’s Day which is celebrated in Germanic countries, typically more on the Eve than the day itself http://www.bookofdaystales.com/walpurgas-nightmay-eve/ . Now it’s the turn of Celtic traditions. Beltane was not historically associated with an exact date, but in modern times it has been pegged specifically to May 1. As always, there’s a great deal of nonsense written about the nature of Beltane historically, with precious little in the way of primary sources to back it up. Romantic, and wishful, speculation always trumps proper historical method, largely because people have a (bad) habit of believing what they want to believe. Having fun in whatever way you want is fine with me. I’d just prefer that you leave historical justification out of the picture. Here is what is reasonably certain.
In Irish Gaelic, the festival is usually called Lá Bealtaine (“day of Beltane”) while the month of May is Mí Bhealtaine (“month of Beltane”). In Scottish Gaelic, the month is called (An) Cèitean or a’ Mhàigh, and the festival is Latha Bealltainn. Sometimes the older Scottish Gaelic spelling Bealltuinn is used. In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealltainn or Là Buidhe Bealltainn (“the yellow day of Beltane”) is used to describe the first day of May. This term Lá Buidhe Bealtaine is also used in Irish and is translated as “Bright May Day”.
Despite more fanciful etymologies of recent years, it is commonly accepted that the Old Irish word Beltaine is derived from the conjectured archaic Celtic *belo-te(p)niâ, meaning “bright fire”. The element *belo- is probably cognate with the obsolete English word “bale” (as in bale-fire) meaning “white” or “shining.” Middle English “bale” comes from Old English bǣl (“funeral pyre”) which derives from Proto-Germanic *bēlą (“pyre”), from Proto-Indo-European *bʰel- (“to shine; gleam; sparkle”). Old Norse bál is also a cognate and may have been the direct source for the English word via Norse invaders. The most important point from all of this is that Beltane is a FIRE festival.
The best historical documentary evidence of the Celtic celebration of Beltane comes from Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, but something akin to it has been noted in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. Beltane in pastoral communities is associated with the beginning of the summer season when the animals of the community were driven up into summer pasture. The reverse traditionally occurred on Samhain (~ November 1) when they were driven back down to the village for winter. Because timing was determined by climate and not by the weather, the exact date varied. In solar terms, Beltane is approximately a cross-quarter day – that is, in Northern latitudes, about halfway between the vernal equinox, and the summer solstice.
There are a number of customs that were once associated with Beltane, many of which died out but were revived in the second half of the 20th century: bonfires, May bushes, visits to holy wells, and house decorating. The Beltane bonfire was probably the most widespread tradition historically, and is the most common today. There are references to Beltane in Old Irish literature, notably the (perhaps 10th century) glossary Sanas Cormaic and the anonymous, The Wooing of Emer by Cú Chulainn in the 15th or 16th century Tochmarc Emire, where we read:
For the druids used to make two fires with great incantations, and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues, every year.
I don’t trust this statement for one minute. What did early modern chroniclers actually know about druid customs that had died out a millennium earlier? In fact, we know virtually nothing about druids anywhere in the British Isles, but there is no end of idle speculation. It’s possible also that Beltane bonfires were a conscious revival in the 18th and 19th centuries based on these old MSS, rather than the continuation of an ancient tradition. In the 19th century, the ritual of driving cattle between two fires was documented in parts of Ireland and Scotland. Sometimes the cattle would be driven around a single bonfire or be made to leap over flames or embers. The people themselves would do likewise. In the Isle of Man, people encouraged the bonfire’s smoke to blow over them and their cattle. Subsequently people would daub themselves with the fire’s ashes and sprinkle it over their crops and livestock. Burning torches from the bonfire would be taken home, where they would be carried around the house or boundary of the farmstead and would be used to re-light the house’s fire which had been doused the night before.
Food could also be cooked at the bonfire. In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote that, in Perthshire, a caudle made from eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk was cooked on the bonfire. Some of the mixture was poured on the ground as a libation. Everyone present would then take an oatmeal cake, called the bannoch Bealltainn or “Beltane bannock”. A bit of it was offered to the spirits to protect their livestock (one bit to protect the horses, one bit to protect the sheep, and so forth) and a bit was offered to each of the animals that might harm their livestock (one to the fox, one to the eagle, and so forth). Afterwards, they would drink the caudle.
According to several 18th century writers, who may or may not be reliable sources, in parts of Scotland there was another ritual involving the oatmeal cake. The cake would be cut and one of the slices marked with charcoal. The slices would then be put in a bonnet and everyone would take one out while blindfolded. According to one writer, whomever got the marked piece would have to leap through the fire three times. According to another, those present would pretend to throw him into the fire and, for some time afterwards, they would speak of him as if he were dead.
The use of yellow flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel, and marsh marigold as garlands was a common Beltane custom, analogous to customs throughout Europe. These were placed at doorways and windows at Beltane in 19th century Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows and sometimes they were made into bouquets, garlands or crosses and fastened to them. They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making.
The May Bush was a common custom in parts of Ireland until the late 19th century. This was a small tree or branch—typically hawthorn, rowan or sycamore—decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, and so forth. There were household May Bushes (which would be placed outside each house) and communal May Bushes (which would be set in a public spot or paraded around the neighborhood). In Dublin and Belfast, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighborhood. Each neighborhood competed for the most well-decorated tree. A certain amount of rowdiness associated with this custom led to the May Bush being outlawed in Victorian times. The practice of decorating a May Bush with flowers, ribbons, garlands and bright shells is found among the Gaelic diaspora, most notably in Newfoundland.
May garlands are a part of the Cornish May 1st celebrations in Padstow. On the evening of the Eve of May the town is thoroughly decorated with flowers, green bowers, and bunting. On May 1st there are two processions through town accompanying their ‘Obby ‘Oss – a unique custom of unknown origins. In the early part of the 20th century it was a very obscure event. But it was popularized by folklorists mid-century so that it is now a gargantuan tourist attraction, laden with the usual nonsense about ancient pagan origins despite the fact that the earliest reference to an ‘Obby ‘Oss in Padstow is 1803.
Holy wells were often visited at Beltane, as well as at Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking “sunwise” (moving from east to west) around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (cloths). The first water drawn from a well on Beltane was seen as being especially potent, as was Beltane morning dew. It could (theoretically) be rolled in or collected in a jar, left in the sunlight, and then filtered. You might notice my skepticism. Ever tried collecting dew in a jar?
Most Beltane customs died out a long time ago and in many locations traces are seen only in place names and a few landmarks. There are a number of place names in Ireland containing the word Bealtaine, indicating places where Bealtaine festivities may have once been held. It is often Anglicized as Beltany. There are three Beltanys in County Donegal, including the Beltany stone circle, and two in County Tyrone. In County Armagh there is a place called Tamnaghvelton/Tamhnach Bhealtaine (“the Beltane field”). Lisbalting/Lios Bealtaine (“the Beltane ringfort”) is in County Tipperary, while Glasheennabaultina/Glaisín na Bealtaine (“the Beltane stream”) is the name of a stream joining the River Galey in County Limerick.
I suggest that you play around with the idea of oatcakes and caudle on this day since they are so commonly mentioned in old sources. They both come in kaleidoscopic variety in the Celtic world. The traditional Scottish oatcake or bannock was a heavy, flat cake of unleavened barley or oatmeal dough formed into a round or oval shape, then cooked on a griddle or, before the 19th century cooked on a bannock stone, a large, flat, rounded piece of sandstone, placed directly on to a fire, then used as a cooking surface. Most modern bannocks are made with baking powder or baking soda as a leavening agent, giving them a lighter texture.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest use of the word “caudle” in 1297. The earliest surviving recipe, from 1300–1325, is simply a list of ingredients: wine, wheat starch, raisins, and sugar to “abate the strength of the wine”. In a description of an initiation ceremony at Merton College, Oxford in 1647, caudle is described as a “syrupy gruel with spices and wine or ale added”. Another recipe from the late 14th century has more ingredients and more details on the cooking procedure: “mix breadcrumbs, wine, sugar or honey, and saffron, bring to a boil, then thicken with egg yolks, and sprinkle with salt, sugar, and ginger.” A 15th-century English cookbook includes three caudle recipes: ale or wine is heated and thickened with egg yolks and/or ground almonds, then optionally spiced with sugar, honey, saffron, and/or ginger. This is one version of caudle you can make without much effort. Just be sure to keep an eagle eye on the pot; it burns without much effort also !! This recipe is for one serving, but can easily be multiplied.
1 cup milk
1 tbsp oatmeal
2 eggs, beaten
grated fresh nutmeg
whisky or ale
Heat the milk in a pan with the oatmeal and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon, then turn down the heat and simmer until it starts to thicken.
Whisk in the eggs, plus honey and nutmeg to taste and simmer for about five minutes, constantly stirring to avoid sticking.
Remove from the heat and stir in whisky or ale in the quantity you want. Serve hot (“caudle” means “hot”) in mugs, or, if you prefer, you can pour it over a bannock as a dessert.