Beltane, (BEL-teyn, -tin), also known as Bealtinne (Caledonii), Festival of Tana (Strega), Walpurgisnacht (Teutonic), Roodmas (ROOD-mass) and May Day, begins sundown on April 30st and continues to sundown May 1st. Astrologically speaking, Beltane begins when the Sun enters 15 degrees Taurus which is in fact closer to May 5th. Some traditions celebrate on this date, calling it "Old Beltane". Beltane marks the end of the planting season, and the beginning of pastoral summer. Beltane is celebrated by modern pagans as one of four fire festivals representing the waxing, light half of the Year.
The great central bonfire known as the "Balefire" was an integral part of this holiday. Often complex patterns were formed with the layout of the bonfire, special magickal symbols being used to help bind the magick to the land and ensure that the Years harvest would be a good one. The Balefire was also used to purify and consecrate. One custom involved herding all cattle in a procession through the smoke of the balefire to purify and bless them with fertility and health for the coming season. Newlyweds would jump over the balefire for luck and to consecrate and seal their vows. The next day, coals were taken from the remains of the fire and carried home to light hearth fires, thereby bringing the magick of the fire to bless their homes.
Another tradition of Beltane, one that has survived to this day, is the Maypole Dance. Believed to be originally a fertility rite intended to bless the land with a prosperous growing season, the dance involved the erection of a long wooden pole with varicolored ribbons tied to the top. Celebrants would then dance around the pole with ribbon in hand, winding and weaving the ribbons together. The resulting weaving was kept as a talisman until Samhain, at which time it was ritually burned.
Beltane was also a time to celebrate love, both physical and marital. Though full year and a day handfastings were quite common at this time of the year, marital vows were relaxed during Beltane. In addition to traditional handfastings, one night "Greenwood Marriages" were common during which couples would sneak off during the feasting, dancing, and singing of the festival to spend the night together under the stars and trees. Then next day, they would gather the dew that had formed during the night. It was believed that the dew of the first morning of May was magickal, and anyone who bathed their face in it would be blessed with beauty for the rest of the year.
The memory of winter has faded, and the air is warm and thick with pollen. Birds of the sky and beasts of the land begin the ecstatic mating ballet. The now mature God and Goddess consummate their sacred marriage, taking love and comfort with each other and in doing so bringing love and fertility to the world.