The Bealtane Celtic Festival traditionally celebrated the arrival of summer. It was one of four major festivals in the Celtic calendar — each of which coincided with a significant time in the solar calendar, the others being:
- Imbolc celebrated on 1 February and marking the arrival of Spring.
- Lúnasa celebrated in early August and marking the beginning of the harvest.
- Samhain celebrated at the end of October and marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter.
Of the four festivals, Samhain continues to be recognisable in contemporary Halloween celebrations.
In the Irish language ‘Bealtaine‘ is the word for the month of May. In common with the other festivals, the Bealtane Celtic festival was celebrated with the lighting of a bonfire — the idea being to invoke the protection of the gods for livestock, crops and people.
In some parts of Ireland, there was a tradition of decorating a May bush with rags as part of the May Day celebrations. The bush would be set alight and a man and woman, disguised in costumes, would dance around the burning bush in a ritual thought to echo some kind of pre-Christian fertility rite.
Today, for the most part, May Day is associated with the political left and Celtic fertility rituals are long since forgotten. What persists, however, is that sense of joy at the imminent arrival of summer. Today, a Bank Holiday on the first Monday in May heralds the beginning of the summer season.