Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands



Beltane or May Day is the Celtic festival that heralds in this time of love aplenty.

May Day or Beltane is celebrated on the 1st of May which, in the old calendar is today, the 11th of May. The word May comes from the Greek Goddess Maia. She was the mother of Hermes and the daughter of Atlas and it is her we honour in the wonderful Beltane celebrations that remain with us to this day.

Many of these customs are fertility customs and with the coming of Christianity such celebrations were looked upon with horror and much was down to try and eradicate these traditions.

Things that we know to be part of this Celtic Pagan festival period are still in evidence and enjoyed by us today. Dancing around the Maypole, the lighting of fires on hilltops, Morris dancing are just some of the activities to celebrate Beltane.

The Beltane Fire.

The origin of the word Beltane is thought to have have come from the Irish Gaelic,  ‘Bealtain’, meaning bright and goodly fire. These fires were lit for both symbolic and practical reasons. It was about an act of cleansing and starting anew and leaping the fire was meant to bring this about for people. Cattle were walked between such fires as they moved from Winter to Summer pasture. Fire leaping was also meant to help those seeking love or safe journeys in whatever guise.

Love in a Celtic Summer.

Summer is the time of love, at least that is what the Celts thought. They rejoiced in the opportunity to make love and form marriages during this period. To ‘Go a – Maying’, was to revel in the love and lust of a partner. People would disappear into the fresh green woods and spend the night there in bliss, emerging with garlands of green. These ‘Greenwood Marriages’ resulted in children who carried spirit names from the woods. We have Jack in the Green and indeed Robin Hood. All clothed in green and carrying bows and arrows of love, we carry this symbolism with us today.

The ‘Greenwood’ or ‘Hand Fasting’ marriage often ended with the couple jumping through the cleansing fire, new beginnings indeed.

The tradition of going A- Maying remained part of our culture right through to the C18th. Kings from earliest times enjoyed the fun including King Henry VIII who went A – Maying.

The May Tree or Hawthorn.

Was there ever such a tree wrapped in traditions good and evil? Beltane and the Hawthorn are inextricably linked. Some considered it bad luck to cut the Hawthorn and bring it indoors. Too much disturbance for the fairies who lived in the trees. Others considered it would protect them against evil spirits and offer them protection and so hung it upon their lintels. Other green garlands, including those with flowers, were also brought into the home. This was a time of celebration of the Summer sun over the Winter.

Dancing around the Maypole, Morris dancers and the May Queen. All part of our May fairs today.

Around Britain, May fairs are not complete without the spectacle of dancing around the Maypole. The decorated pole (thought by some to be a phallic symbol), is hung with ribbons and garlands. The dancers pick up the lengths of ribbon and the dance begins. Male and female dancers threading their way through the dance until the pole is laced in brightly coloured ribbons. The plait of the ribbons is important. Done correctly and the harvest that year will be good. The dancing connects the people with Mother Earth, it is a dance for the goddess.

Along with the Maypole come the Morris dancers. The bells and handkerchiefs, the music and the sticks. It looks like an ancient performance even now. Amongst the characters that accompany the dancers is the hobby horse or the Oss as it is called in some parts of the country. This horse figure is an important character in Beltane ceremonies and is though to symbolize the masculine part of the festival which is otherwise all about the goddess.

The village fete of course would not be complete without the crowning of the May queen, drawn through the village with a garland of flowers on her head. Another connection to the Beltane.

Mischievous May.

So in this month of love and lust, fairies abound with tricks and cruelties to play. It was considered bad luck to be married in May. Could this have much to do with Christians wanting nothing to do with the fertility celebrations of the Pagan goddess? This is after all the month when the ripe goddess is married. It is all to do with being a sexual woman bringing forth new life. Not sure how the Medieval Christian church would cope with all that.

Maybe we should do more to embrace Beltane. It seems like a great opportunity to indulge in fun and opportunity and look forward to better days to come.