Beltane, May 1st, is a cross-quarter day on the Celtic calendar. That means is lies halfway between a solstice and an equinox. The Celts divided the year in two—Samhain marked the start of winter and the new year, while Beltane denoted the beginning of summer.
The festival is named for Bel, the Celtic god of heat and healing springs. Known as "The Shining One" because of his association with the sun, fire is Bel's sign. To the Welsh, he was also the god of cattle and sheep. Animals were driven between Beltane fires in a ritual of purification prior to their release into summer pasture.
Like most cultures, the Saxons began their May Day games and feasting the evening of April 30th. Torch bearers wound up mountain paths and ignited wooden wheels which they then rolled down into the fields, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life.
In Scotland and Wales, branches and trunks of trees were piled in the center of a sacred circle. "Heavenly fire" was ignited by rubbing two pieces of wood together. Fire brands were distributed to rekindle household hearths that had been extinguished prior to the celebration. Ashes from Beltane fires were kept for luck.
Ritual sacrifice seems to have once been a part of Beltane observance. In Wales and Scotland, an oatcake was divided into equal parts and one piece blackened. All were then placed in a container and every man drew a piece. The fellow with the blackened bit had to jump through the fire three times, or pass between two ritual fires, to assure healthy animals and a bountiful harvest.
In England, villagers went into the woods at midnight on April 30th to gather branches and flowers. At dawn, everything was dragged back to town. Of the girls who went "a-maying," Stubbs in his 1585 Anatomie of Abuses says, "scarcely a thirde parte of them returned home againe undefiled." Licentiousness has always been a hallmark of May Day in an echo of ancient fertility rituals.
Houses and gates were decked with flowers. Girls washed their faced with May dew in the belief it had the power to restore beauty and remove freckles. (This practice may be an outgrowth of Bel's association with sacred wells, the waters of which were believed to possess healing powers.)
In addition to Bel, there are several other gods and goddesses associated with May Day. In France, Abelio was the god of green growing things. The Greeks called him Abelios. The Romans honored Flora, the goddess of flowers and vegetation in a celebration held between April 28th and May 3rd. Theatrical presentations, games, dancing and lascivious behavior marked the festival. Floral wreaths garlanded animals and were worn in the hair. Offerings of milk and honey were made to Flora.
The Romans also venerated Maia Maiestas (Maia the Majestic), goddess of spring, warmth and increase. Pregnant sows were sacrificed to her on the first day of May. It is for Maia the month was named.
The Virgin Mary and Lady of the May/May Queen
As was its wont with pagan holidays, the Catholic Church appropriated May Day for its own. On May 1st, statues of the Virgin Mary were crowned with floral wreaths. Nevertheless, the old ways persisted.
A May queen--usually a virgin dressed in white—was chosen to preside over the celebration. As a stand-in for the goddess, the May queen represented life, rebirth and fertility.
Lord of the May: Cerrunos/Robin Goodfellow/Hood
Cerrunos, the Celtic horned god of fertility, life and animals, is associated with Beltane. Over time, his name was shortened to Cerne, the "c" softened and changed to "h," until he became Herne. Cerrunos/Herne is depicted wearing the antlers of a stag. Born on the winter solstice, he marries the goddess on Beltane and dies at the summer solstice.
Because of the horns, Christians equated Herne with devil. He morphed into the character of Robin Goodfellow—a Puck-like nature sprite likely taken from the Greek god, Pan. The earliest known references to Robin Goodfellow are from the 16th century. He is immortalized by Shakespeare in A Midsummer's Night Dream.
It is from Robin Goodfellow that stories of Robin Hood were spawned. Reenactments of these tales became an important aspect of the May Day tradition. It is interesting to note the earliest references to Maid Marian didn't appeared until 1280 in a French romance entitled Jeu du Robin et Marion. In this story, Robin is a shepherd and Marian a shepherdess.
No symbol of May Day is more blatantly sexual that the maypole. Traditionally the trunk of a tall birch or ash, villages vied to erect the tallest. Decorated with leaves, wildflowers and ribbons, revelers sang and danced around this phallic symbol. Often, it stood permanently on the village green.
"The tallest maypole is said to have been erected in London on the Strand in 1661; it stood over 143 feet high. It was felled in 1717, when it was used by Isaac Newton to support Huygen's new reflecting telescope." (British Life and Culture: Project Britain)
To the Celts, trees were sacred. Each of the thirteen months of their calendar was identified with a specific kind and god. It is interesting to note that, in France during the revolution, the maypole became the Tree of Liberty.
Jack in the Green/Green Man
As a May Day character, Jack in the Green didn't become popular until the 18th & 19th century. A man would dress in pyramid of green foliage and, accompanied by musicians, make his way to a place where he was ritually put to death.
Likely he is personification of the Welsh god Gwrddni, which translates as "verdure"—a reference to the greenness of vegetation. The Romans in Britain called him Viridios/Viridius.
To the Celts, he was Cylenchar, "the hidden one," son of the goddess of birth and renewal and the god of life and death. He is depicted with vines growing out of his mouth.
2nd century images of this god have been found in Lebanon and Iraq. His likeness appeared in 8th century Jain temples and was carved in Templar churches in Jerusalem during 11th century. Labeled the "Green Man' in the 19th century, his customs can be found in Africa, India. His image is seen in Moslem and Buddhist temples, even in pre-Columbian temples in Mexico.
There is disagreement over why early Christians included such pagan images in their architecture. The Green Man is often paired with the likeness of Sheela-Na-Gig, a pagan mother goddess. Perhaps the masons who built the early churches thought to cover all bets as they transitioned from the old ways to the new religion.
Some believe Green Man representations are symbols of the divine presence in nature. Others think his image is more autumnal than vernal, signifying the sin of lustfulness and death—the devil. Exeter Cathedral is filled with Green Man imagery. A mask of the Green Man dating to 50 B.C. was discovered in France in the late 19th century.
May Day celebrations have been alternately outlawed and reinstated throughout British history. The Calvinists in Scotland banned them in 1555. Parliament prohibited maypoles in 1644 as a "heathenish vanity". When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, maypoles reappeared as a demonstration of loyalty to the Crown.
During the Victorian period, Britain witnessed a nostalgic return to the days of "merrie olde England." May Day was stripped of its blatantly sexual overtones and became a day for frolic. Milk maids dressed in their finest and stacked ribbon and flower-adorned metal cooking utensils atop their heads. Accompanied by bagpipes or a fiddler, they went from door to door dancing, singing and begging money from their customers. Chimney sweeps smeared their faces with brick dust and, pounding coal shovels with their brushes, capered about.