Updated: Apr 21
Welcome to ‘Tales from the Other Side’ where we look at folklore, mythology and magic.
May Day is one of the quarterly days in the traditional Irish calendar. These quarterly days fall in between the solstices and equinoxes and indicate the start of a new season. 1st May represents the beginning of Summer. May Day is marked by a variety of customs, most associated with warding off bad luck, hopes for a bountiful summer and protecting family, home and cattle. During the quarterly days the veil between the human world and the other world is thinner and there is much more magical activity.
In ancient times this feast was known as Bealtaine which means ‘bright fire’. As the name suggests, fire played an important part in Bealtaine rituals. Bonfires were lit and their flames, smoke and embers were thought to have protective powers. It marked the time that cattle were moved to summer pastures and it was common practice to drive the cattle through the dying embers so that they would also be protected. In some areas of Ireland the ashes from the fire were saved and were used to make a poultice to heal wounds and sores. The household fire was the central point for all activity and was never allowed to go out aside from May Day where it was quenched and then relit from the Bealtaine bonfire.
The evening before May Day children would collect yellow flowers such as marigolds, primroses and buttercups. These would then be spread on the doorsteps and windowsills of the house to offer luck and protection from witches who would be unable to cross the flowers and enter the house. Witches were particularly active around May Day and it was believed that they would roam the countryside to steal their neighbour’s butter. This meant that the household would be unable to produce butter in the coming year - no matter how hard milk was churned it would never produce butter. As milk and butter were important not only for the household economy but also the diet, there was great fear of any threat to their production. Many farming tasks, lighting of fires and even eating was avoided May Day morning when you were most likely to encounter a witch, sometimes in the form of a hare. Farmers would patrol the fields midnight to midday with shotguns loaded with silver sixpences to shoot any hares that appeared on their land.
Another popular tradition to protect the house was to decorate the branches of a flowering tree. It was typical to tie ribbons, cloth and painted eggshells that had been decorated and saved from Easter Sunday. This was known as a May bush. There were some instances where May bushes were stolen in the belief that doing so would allow the thief to obtain the protection and luck of their neighbours. In some areas of Ireland the branch would be cut from the tree and displayed above the door which is known as a May bough.
Water from Holy Wells is thought to be more powerful at this time of year and would be used for healing and blessings from the associated Saint. The morning dew of May Day is considered to have magical properties and it was common for women to wash their face in the May Day Dew to give them beauty and a clear complexion. Some people took this further and rolled in the dew naked!
In Christian tradition May is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and special devotions take place in her honour. As with many Christian feasts this tradition has echoes of a Pagan goddess with many similar rituals. Altars would be set up in the home where the family could gather to pray. These altars would be decorated with a statue of Our Lady, pictures of Saints, candles and flowers. Local Grottoes and Shrines would also be decorated in a similar way and a crown of flowers would be made to adorn statues of The Virgin.
Whilst Christianity took over as the major form of worship, the rituals and traditions surrounding Bealtaine have survived and in recent times they are gaining more popularity. There are now many social and cultural festivals with modern programmes but there is always a nod to the origins of this ancient feast day.
For more information on Bealtaine see here