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When I was a little girl, my sister and I would celebrate the first of May by making little paper baskets and filling them with candy. We would then sneak around the neighborhood to our friend’s houses, leave them on the doorsteps, ring the bells, and run away, screaming with laughter. The trick was never to reveal your identity to the recipient of the gift. Little did I know at the time that we were celebrating an old custom that harkened back to ancient times.
Like any celebration based on ancient agricultural practices, it is impossible to know the exact origin of out May Day. Celebrations of spring are found in cultures all over the world, with similar themes of renewal, planting and growth, the gathering of flowers, and playful celebrations.
However, much of the meaning behind modern Pagan custom can be traced to Celtic origins, or at least with attribute to the Celts. We know that they divided the year into two seasons: summer and winter, the dark and life halves of the year. Within this they honored four major turning points, Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh, with fire festivals.
These festivals coincided astrologically with the Sun at 15 degrees Scorpio, Aquarius, Taurus, and Leo, respectively. This made these pivotal points each a type of “moveable” feast originally, like the solstices and equinoxes, which vary by a day or two from year to year. But due to changes in calendars over time, eventually the first day of the months of November, February, May, and August were earmarked for these festivals, evolving into what Witches call the Great Sabbats, with the celebrations commencing at sunset the eve before.
The flexibility in the actual date is followed by some Pagans today, and May Day, or Beltane, celebrations calculated this way are called “Old Beltane.” This explains the custom in ancient Ireland of celebrating the first day of summer on May 6. This day was given to Inghean Bhuidhe, the Yellow-Haired Girl, one of the three sister-goddesses who brought in the seasons: the First of Spring, the First of Summer, and the First Harvest.
The return of the light was called Cetsamhain (“opposite Samhain”) or Beltaine in Ireland, Galan-Mai in Wales, and in Scotland, Beaultiunn, on the Isle of Man, it was known as Day of Summer and in Germany, Walpurgisnatch. The medieval church renamed the holiday Roodmas, hoping to shift the emphasis from the phallic Maypole to the Holy Rood, or Cross, and celebrations once marked by Pagan frivolity were usurped by festivities held in churchyards.
Copyright Llewellyn’s Witches’ Datebook 2001 Pages21 to25