This is one of the articles from my Beltaine newsletter. Feel free to take a look at the rest of it. Lá Beltaine sona daoibh!
Lá Beltaine or May Day widely celebrated in agricultural cultures. This holiday signified the shift in energy that occurs as spring turns to summer. Flowers were beginning to bloom and outdoor work increased.
When Ireland was populated mostly by pastoral cultures, this was the time they would move their livestock to their summer grazing pastures called buailes (booleys). It was also a time when the fishermen would leave on their long fishing trips. So the eminent departure seemed to call for a sending-off party.
These celebrations always centered around a community bonfire, which stems back to much more ancient traditions, but they had a practical nature. Traditionally, these festivals were the venue for paying rents, hiring summer workers and making contracts for summer grazing land.
Flowers were strewn on the threshold of homes and garlands of flowers were hung –they were even tied to cows tails according to scholar, Estyn Evans.
Young people would carry branches of flowers and walk from home-to-home singing songs which welcomed summer in return for small treats or gifts. This is a sweet little song frequently heard in Waldorf classrooms that speaks to this custom.
Many of the rituals surrounding Beltaine involved saining the cattle by various methods. This word which finds its origin in the Old Irish word sén– referred to “protective charms” of various natures. One of these rituals involved driving the herds over the embers of the dying fires . Frazer reports that men would also leap over the fires and intimates that this was a re-enactment of an older customs involving human sacrifice.
As Beltaine was the beginning of the dairying season, Frazer also reported that the traditional foods at these festivals were caudle –a custard of butter, eggs and milk and “a cake of oatmeal, which is toasted at the embers against a stone.” In other areas of the country a flat bread called farl was served with caudle.
This is not a Celtic custom rather it is a German custom that I learned long ago and incorporated into my May Day celebrations. I believe the first time I had it was at a Waldorf playdate and it was the non-alcoholic version I describe below. In the years before I had sweet woodruff growing, I would use violets and that makes a tasty beverage as well. So feel free to substitute.
In the evening before you want to serve the Mai Bowle, April 30th, pour wine over sweet woodruff and allow this to steep over night in your punch bowl.
Just before serving you will want to remove the sweet woodruff and mix in the honey, brandy and champagne. Float the sliced strawberries, woodruff blossoms, and violet blossoms on this mixture.
Warm apple juice and the honey and pour this mixture over the sweet woodruff in the evening. When serving use sparkling water instead of champagne.