Bealtaine is a festival that occurs on May 1st and signifies the return of the light after winter. It was once widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man and May Day celebrations occur throughout Europe. This article focuses on customs and practices of May Eve in Irish tradition - I have previously written an article describing May Day customs here:
Behind all the May festivities and gaiety lay strong folk-magical and supernatural beliefs. Like all Irish festivals, the celebrations begin on sundown on the eve of the festival that occurs the next day (Halloween and Christmas Eve are good examples of this). It was believed that the period from sundown on May Eve to dawn on May Day was an especially liminal time when the presence of the otherworld was closer and more accessible. Faeries, supernatural beings or those with evil intent, were all believed to be at the height of their power. The family, the home, the farm, livestock and its produce, even well water, was all in danger of being cursed or stolen and therefore had to be protected.
Above: Marsh marigolds were considered especially powerful against faeries on May Eve.
Protection was offered by many things, but above all flowers had a particular potency at this time. They were left on the threshold on May Eve, or thrown onto the roof of one’s home, or on window sills, or garlanded and tied to cows’ tails. Above all, yellow flowers, such as primroses, gorse and marsh marigold were seen as best against evil spirits who were renowned for their dislike of that colour.
In their placement at all the openings that allowed things in to and out of the home, they guarded what were considered liminal areas. At all times of the year protective essentials such as iron, and Christian symbols of holy water, crosses and so on were left at these places to discourage bad luck from entering the home.
Above: a cow with a flower garland tied to her tail to offer protection from faeries. Illustration in pen and ink by the author.
As the liminal period from sunset on May Eve to dawn on May Day was believed a time when any magical practices were most potent. For people who wished to have a go, it was thought to be a good time to attempt magic spells. Charms were thought to work more effectively on people at this time, as were curses and counter charms.
It was considered a good time for divination too, especially for marriage. A girl’s husband might appear behind her if she peered at her reflection in water on May Eve. A snail placed in flour or ash might slither to form the first letter of a future husband’s or wife’s name. On May Eve it was also a custom to leave ashes on a threshold and a footprint found in them the next day could be “read” for signs: if it faced outward it meant marriage, if inward, it meant death.
From the 1830s, tea became a staple in people’s diets and following in its wake, the reading of tea leaves became popular in Ireland as a form of divination. Only people with ’the gift’ for doing so could read the leaves, but everyone could have a go at the liminal times of Halloween and May Eve.
Above: May Day celebrations were known around Europe. 'Punch or May Day (1830)' By Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846)
Sickness on May Eve or May Day was considered ominous, as humans were thought to be at greater risk of faery abduction or from faery stroke (sudden incapacitation). In some areas before sunrise people would gather hazel rods and carve small figures from them, these would be displayed to ward off evil. Herbs gathered after sunset on May Eve were believed to be extra powerful when used in medicine.
There are a huge number of additional customs and here I could only discuss a few. I have written about this more comprehensively in my forthcoming book Irish Customs and Rituals: how our ancestors celebrated life and the seasons due to be published by Orpen Press in the summer of 2020.