May Day, celebrated on May 1st it is an ancient spring and summer festival that has been celebrated for thousands of years, especially in Europe and in the northern hemisphere. Some people associate May Day with International Workers’ Day a secular holiday started by socialists and communists to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago and although International Workers’ Day may also be referred to as “May Day”, it is an entirely different celebration from traditional May Day.
MAY DAY IN SARDINIA
Although most of Italy celebrates May Day as International Workers’ Day, in Sardinia it is the Feast of Sant’ Efisio. This feast day was long ago combined with a local spring harvest festival in the capital of Cagliari but has since grown and now involves thousands of people from all over Sardinia dressed in their national costumes and celebrating the various areas and traditional industries of Sardinia.
Efisio was a Roman officer sent to Sardinia by the Emperor Diocleziano to suppress Christianity on the island, but somehow instead became the follower of the new religion. The Romans asked him to renounce his new faith but he refused and was sentenced to death. He was initially imprisoned in Cagliari and then moved to a secret location near the coast for his execution by a fellow Roman soldier. A church was built the spot of his execution to honor him.
In 1652, Sardinia was infested with a plague that killed half of the inhabitants of Cagliari. So the people turned to their saint, Efisio di Elia, to intervene. The leaders announced that if entreating Saint Efisio stopped the plague, then every year forever after, the people of Cagliari would carry his statue in a procession from the church in Cagliari to the one in Nora, the location where Efisio was beheaded and became a martyr. The plague disappeared, and so the festival has continued every year since 1652. Efisio’s reputation is still very strong among the local people. Besides ending the plague, he is also credited with saving the city from a French siege in 1793, and also for helping the people rebuild the city after it was badly damaged during the second world war.
Bealtaine or Beltane is the Celtic name for May Day. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc, and Lughnasadh. The Celts divided the year into two main seasons. Winter (Samhain) starting on November 1, and summer (Bealtaine starting) on May 1. These two points of the year were believed to be a time when the boundaries between the human world and the Otherworld were temporarily thin. It was thought that fairies and other supernatural beings roamed freely in the human world at those times and it was just as easy for a human to end up in the land of the fairies. Therefore, certain protections, usually in the form of fire, had to be administered against their enchantments to protect those of this world.
In Germany, the festival is not called Beltane, but Walpurgis Night. History states that in the 17th-century, influenced by the descriptions of Witches’ Sabbaths in 15th and 16th-century literature, it was believed that witches gathered on this night on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, in central Germany. However, the origins of the holiday date back to pagan celebrations and fertility rites that honored the coming of spring. It harkens back to the Celtic belief that the veil between this world and the Otherworld were thin, and that it was necessary to appease fairies and other creatures not of this world. To counteract witchcraft on this night, and legitimize a festival day so entwined with the local culture, the church established the Feast of Saint Walpurga on the same night because it was believed that Saint Walpurga was efficacious against evil magic and Christians would pray to her to intervene and protect them against the witches. Walpurgis Night celebrations include bonfires and maypole dancing.
The festival of Beltane, in some part or other, persisted until the 1950s in the British Isles and also parts of mainland Europe, like Germany, Austria and some of the Slavic countries. In many areas where these traditions held on the longest, it is still celebrated today as a cultural event and usually involves giant bonfires and dancing. You can still enjoy Beltane celebration in parts of Ireland, Germany, the Scottish Borders, Scandinavia and North America (where the celebration was brought over by immigrants from the locations named).
WHY WE CELEBRATE BELTANE
Although we live in more modern times our own ancestors celebrated the changing of the seasonal tides for millennia before and the need to do so is still imprinted on our DNA. We still long to connect in a deeper way to seasonal change, and so by celebrating these holy days and the changing seasons we can connect to something older than us that is still very much a part of us and our heritage.
For us modern folk, seasonal changes may bring better or worse weather, or longer or shorter days depending on the time of year, but in earlier times, these seasonal changes were much more important and there was a lot more riding on them. In some instances, it meant life and death. Illness abounded in tight closed spaces and family members were often lost in the colder seasons. So as the weather got warmer and things began to grow again, or the seeds that were sowed in the spring were beginning to blossom, it was a time to celebrate being alive, and being able to enjoy the next several months without too much worry, except for witches and fairies, that is.
HOW WE CELEBRATE BELTANE
Beltane is a wonderful holiday to spend with children and family. Yes, there are fertility connotations to the celebrations, but when celebrating with family it is easy to focus on the new growth in nature – trees popping with buds and wildflowers blooming. Many people celebrate simply by enjoying the outdoors. Going on picnics is a popular activity for many folks. Children love being outside and learning about nature and can easily connect to the magic that occurs as the seasons change.
Sadly, this year it is raining, and so in anticipation of dreary weather, we decided to find a way to celebrate indoors. Since Beltane is a fire festival (learn more in the guide) we will light a fire in our fireplace and make honeycakes together, typical fare for Beltane festivals. It is well known that fairies love honey, and so we will leave some out for them, asking them to bless our family with good fortune all summer long.
Fried Honey Cakes
- ½ cup sweet white wine
- 1 egg
- ⅔ cup all purpose flour
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 cup honey
- ⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
- Olive oil for frying
- Beat the wine with the egg in a medium bowl.
- Combine the flour, salt, cinnamon, and sugar in a separate bowl, and then stir into the egg mixture.
- Let stand 30 minutes.
- Combine the honey and nutmeg in a small bowl.
- Heat about 1-inch of oil in a large skillet until hot, but not smoking.
- Drop the batter into the oil about 1 tablespoon at a time and fry until golden brown on both sides.
- Drain on paper towels.
- Dip into the honey.
HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE BELTANE?
I offer FREE monthly seasonal guides with ideas for how to celebrate the changing of the seasons. The guide for Beltane was delivered at the end of April in anticipation of the holiday. The monthly guides are generally 25+ pages of folklore, activities, rituals, and recipes that are great for both individuals and families.