Beltane is the last and largest of the spring Sabbats, falling on April 30th or May 1st, depending on how a particular traidtion keeps its calendar. The word is from “Bealtaine” in old Gaelic, meaning “fire of Bel” the Celtic god of light. Beltane occurs midway between Ostara and the Summer Solstice. Beltane is considered the counterpart to Samhain, marking the beginning of the full season of warmth and light that is summer.
The most common Beltane ritual was to hold an all-night bonfire. Sacred Beltane fires are sometimes noted as being kindled from nine different types of wood: birch, oak, rowan, willow, hawthorn, apple, vine, hazel and fir. In some ancient traditions, two bonfires would be started with a broad path left open between them. People and their livestock would walk between the two fires to symbolically purify and impart good luck and fertility. These fires would often be built from more than one type of wood, with oak being thought of as especially significant on this night. Rowan branches were also tied at doors and windows for protection on this night.
Singing, live music and much dancing went on around the fires. Many modern pagan group host special outdoor bonfires at this time of year. If you search for events local to you, there may be one closer than you think. The practice of jumping the bonfire is associated with this holiday. This usually took place much later in the night or early dawn, when the fire had burnt down to very short flames and coals. On occasion, a couple would seal their handfasting vows with such an action. In some traditions, when the holiday fire had burned low and was no longer dangerous, the village cattle would be driven directly through the embers as an act of purification and protection. Some modern groups substitute jumping over a small cauldron in which a fire has been kindled, putting the emphasis on the symbolism and allowing for a much higher degree of personal safety.
The ritual of the May Fool also exists in some Pagan traditions. It was believed a chosen scapegoat would carry the bad luck for the coming year, allowing prosperity for everyone else. Special cakes, called bannocks, were baked from egg, milk and oatmeal. One would be charred, or slightly burnt, and the person who picked this cake at the celebration would become the chosen Fool for that year.
May morning was also a time considered auspicious for collecting dew or fresh water. Maidens traditionally washed their faces with dew on May Day morning. This pure and energized water would also be used for medicinal or herbal preparations. This is also one of the times of year to sow herbs and sacred plants.
Another old Beltane custom is “beating the bounds” whereby you make a complete circuit around the outer perimeter of your property or lands. Some traditions indicate that activities to bless the land, others make mention of this as an annual time to repair fences and boundary markers.