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Beltane and May Day: Maypoles and massacres

May 1st is a day which holds multiple meanings around the world, from the origins of Beltane among the Gaels to the celebrations and triumphs of International Workers day. Although May 1st lies between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, according to many belief systems it is the first day of summer. In many Pagan traditions, Beltane is the cardinal opposite of Samhain, which coincides with Halloween. This is also demonstrated in the ways these two Holy Days are celebrated; Samhain has traditionally been a time to welcome dead loved ones and prepare for the harshness of winter, just as Beltane has been a time to open ourselves up to spring, and is commonly associated with The Fae. Just as the liminal veil thins at Samhain, it is believed to do the same at Beltane, allowing for connection to the earth.

The word Beltane is the anglicized name for the Irish Lá Bealtaine, the Scottish Là Bealltainn and closely related to the Welsh Calan Mai. It’s meaning is equivalent to “lucky fire” and historical etymology suggests that the original Gaelic word for the festival was beloteniâ, meaning ‘bright fire’. Although written accounts of Beltane prior to the 9th century are extremely sparse, the practices and traditions lineup with other spring festivals in the area. The Gaelic practice may have originated with the Roman celebrations of Bona Dea, and is very close to the Norse celebration of Eyvind Kelve. The first known document to make mention of Beltane was Sanas Cormaic, attributed to Cormac mac Cuilennáin, an Irish Bishop and King of Munster from 902 to 908. This work stripped the celebration of its Druidic ties, but other accounts show that folk practices continued throughout Ireland and Scotland.

Both Ireland and Scotland were very agricultural, meaning that the Gaelic calendar was set around the agricultural seasons. Practices such as driving cattle through two bonfires and walking the full perimeter of the land one works on or owns are traditions that survive to this day. Just as fires lit on Samhain were fed all winter, on Beltane those fires were extinguished and lit anew. Beltane retains a lot of that fire symbology, with practices such as jumping over fires and putting out yellow flowers. Livestock and equipment, such as milk cows, were often adorned in flowers. Foods and items prepared using the ritual Beltane fires were believed to have special powers.

One of the most recognizable traditions related to Beltane is the maypole, a tall pole with ribbons streaming from the top. Through spinning and dancing by celebrants, the ribbons are eventually wrapped around the pole. The first recorded instance of maypoles was in the 14th century, and may have been attached to spring and summer celebrations in general, rather than being specific to Beltane. For many modern Pagan celebrants, the may pole is a symbol of fertility, a symbol which echoes throughout Beltane traditions. Other traditional practices have seen modification, such as jumping over brooms rather than fires. A lot of modern Beltane practices are centered around sexuality and fertility, and while it’s very likely that Beltane, being the height of spring, was a time of celebrating fertility, there is no evidence that it was a particularly sexual holiday prior to the Gardnerian era.

May 1st is also International Workers Day, also called May Day, and while these two celebrations share a date out of coincidence, there is no reason we can’t celebrate both. May Day protests became a tradition beginning in 1889, when the Marxist International Socialist Congress called for an international demonstration by workers with the primary demand that employers should not force employees to work more than 8 hours a day. Although unions and workers rights advocates had begun pushing for this change in 1886, many workers worked dangerously long, underpaid shifts. In Chicago, unions called for workers demands to be met by May 1st, and massive protests were launched beginning May 3rd. These protests ended in what is now referred to as The Haymarket Massacre, with police opening fire on peaceful protestors on the night of May 3rd. On May 4th, thousands more protesters took to the streets, calling for both labor reform and an end to police brutality. This event would end with at least 40 dead, and all of the major union leaders in the city, even those who were not present at the event, sentenced to death.

Three years later, in 1889, it was decided by a joint commission of union groups that May 1st would henceforth be a day of workers protests, both celebrating work accomplished and setting new goals towards workers equity. Although IWD is similar to Labor Day, and in many nations the holiday on May 1st has a similar name, the US holiday is much less focused on present day workers rights as it is on past union successes. For this reason, workers rights groups and union leaders continue holding protests on May 1st, and multiple efforts to move the US Labor Day to May 1st have failed.

The name May Day is now often used for both of these very different holidays. International celebrations of both Beltane and International Workers Day have continued to evolve in the modern era. I tend to think that this is a unique opportunity; it is not surprising that many union slogans include references to growth and spring. Even if you can’t jump over a bonfire, or take part in a workers march, it can be worth remembering that the platitudes of spring will continue to apply.

“Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men,” and “May Day is like Love Day” especially captures this turning into the sun. Just as Samhain is the day for lighting hearth fires through the winter, those ashes are scattered and new fires are lit to carry us through summer on Beltane. In this age of distance, we are learning how to celebrate the passing of time, and the vital work of our fellows. Even if all you do is spend some time outside, or with your community, I wish you all the plenty and abundance of spring.


Morgan Wigmore

Morgan is a Seattle Central alumni currently attending Oregon State University where she is majoring in Anthropology. In addition to writing, she enjoys painting and linguistics. She lives in a very small house with a very fat cat.

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