The ancient Celtic year was divided into four main parts, according to the seasons, each of which was preceded by a great religious festival and accompanied by feasting, sports, games and religious observances.

In the Celtic world, Bealtaine (end of April or May 1)* marked the start of the summer quarter and the return of the sun’s warmth and the consequent fertility of crops and animals and was observed by lighting bonfires, the smoke of these holy fires associated with the Celtic sun god Belenos. Druids officiated at these ceremonies, muttering incantations and throwing handfuls of bones of both animals and warriors into the flames that flared orange against the darkening sky to the west, while the people and their cattle walked around and between two great fires, and young boys dared each other to leap over the flames and embers from the burnt offerings which the druids believed had purifying powers used to kill pests on cattle before they were driven out to open grazingFestivals

May Day customs – dancing at crossroads – still remain popular in many parts of the Celtic world with all hearth fires and lamps extinguished as night fell and the only light coming from the two sacrificial fires lit by the druids. All domestic new fires had to be kindled from these new sacred fires.

Yellow flowers of gorse, hazel and marsh marigold were used to decorate the entrances to the dwellings so that their sweet scent permeated the warm night air of early summer. Bealtaine dew was also thought to enhance beauty and maintain youthfulness if one rolled naked and washed in the dew or it could be collected in a jar and left in the sunlight, for the ‘filtered essence’ was thought to maintain youthfulness and increase sexual attractiveness!

Bealtaine, like its counterpart festival, Samhain, was a time most auspicious for the Sídhe, or the fairy folk, who were particularly active at the start of Bealtaine, emerging from their ancient passage mounds, leaving their gold and treasure momentarily unguarded for the greedy and the unwary.

Bealtaine may also refer to the Bilé, the Celtic god of life and death and may have associations with Baal, the Eastern deity.IMG_0406

Christianity’s first major confrontation with Celtic and pagan Ireland also took place during the festival of Bealtaine when St. Patrick, later to become the patron saint of the island, lit the paschal fire at Slane before the druids of king Laoghaire first lit the sacred fire of Bealtaine on the holy mound of Tara in 433 A.D.


  • In Australia, of course, the seasons are revesed and Bealtaine would be held at the end of October or the very beginning of November

Times and Seasons


I should have posted this about a week ago as the time was germane to the topic but here goes now anyway.

The Iron Age Celts counted time in terms of nights rather than days and the passing of moons rather than months while the celebration of Féis, or festivals, at regular intervals marked the passing of the years.

The most commonly observed féis included:

Bealtaine (May 1) which was observed by lighting bonfires, the smoke of which had purifying powers and was used to kill pests on cattle. I think it might also have been an early harvest time but i couldn’t swear to it.

Next up was Lugnasa aka Lughnasadh and Lughnasa. (Aug. 1) which was the festival marking the beginning of the harvest season. Originally it was held on or about halfway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. The festival itself is named after the god Lugh. It involved great gatherings that included druidic ceremonies, ritual athletic contests (most notably the Tailteann Games, Áenach Tailten which were held at Tailtin in County Meath), feasting, matchmaking and trading while community rites included an offering of the first of the grain crops, a feast of the new food and of bilberries, the sacrifice of a bull and a ritual dance-play. Much of this would have taken place on top of hills and mountains.

Samhain (Nov. 1) was the start of the Celtic year and was, again, a time for sacrifices and community gatherings. Rememberance of spirits of the dead was a prominent feature while the festival also marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year, the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. As at Bealtaine, special bonfires were lit. These were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers.

Finally, Imbolc (Feb. 1) marked the beginning of spring and fertility, renewal and purification and the yearly cycle continued its round.

Interestingly, in the fifth Century when St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, rather than trying to stamp out these “pagan” festivals, the early church commandeered them – Samhain becoming All Souls Day and Easter taking over Bealtaine. St. Paddy himself used the sun symbol of the god Lugh superimposed on the Christian cross to make what is widely known now as the “celtic cross”.