Beltane, like Samhain—which is also referred to as Walpurgisnacht in Germanic countries after Saint Walpurga, Calan Mai in Wales, and May Day by English-speaking countries—isn’t so much a celebration of a particular deity despite sacrifices being made to Belenus, “the bright one”, or an astronomical event; rather, Beltane marks the beginning of the “light” part of the year just as Samhain marks the beginning of the “dark” part of the year—times of the year when the day or the night are more present than others, when growing and harvesting occurs, when doors are opened or closed.
And, because of this demarcation in the year, Beltane—like Samhain—is a time when the Veil Between The Worlds are at their thinnest—a liminal time-no-time as the seasons shift—and fairies and spirits and the Realm of the Dead are closest to us.
Which sounds all very poetic and a bit too mystical perhaps. However, there is a long historical tradition that Beltane is a time when the aos sí (“spirits” or “fairies”) are most active—mostly in Gaelic cultures—and is a reflection of the founding of Ireland that mythologically situates the immigrating Irish as the usurpers of the Tuatha de Danann, who became the Irish fairies.
But, mostly, Beltane is a fertility festival because it marks the beginning of summer.
Okay, not in a literal way because the first day of summer occurs on the Summer Solstice, which is the longest day of the year, but in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Britain, and many Germanic countries, summer began with the driving of animals to their summer pastures and, in some places, with the completion of the spring planting when you were basically waiting for everything to grow.
Which is interesting since Beltane has this populist aspect that dates all the way back to the Roman Floralia which was a celebration in honor of the goddess Flora who’s a goddess of flowers and Spring and fertility.
In addition to the Floralia being a distinctly plebian festival in contrast to the more patrician Roman festivals, the Floralia had a sexual component due to the participation of porne in the Floralia celebrations. Interestingly, the Floralia is a very, very old festival with Flora’s altar at Rome being attributed to the Sabine king Titus Tatius and dates back to the Regnum Romanum (753-509 BCE).
Sacrifices to Flora were also received in the sacred grove of the Arvales, a priesthood that was said to have been founded by Romulus himself.
The presence of the Floralia in the syncretic history of Beltane—because, let’s face it, this is another one of those Sabbats whose pre-Christian origins are as mixed up as anything can be due to Colonialism and mass migrations and plain-old cultural exchange, not to mention Christian appropriation and attempts at eradicating pre-Christian practices—probably also explains why there are hints here and there that May Day festivities included sex (which the children of these unions were considered specially blessed or were considered changelings, which lent them certain cultural protections as did most acts attributed to fairies).
Which would make sense since Beltane is all about fertility.
But, Beltane isn’t just about fertility and fecundity.
It’s also about protection.
And, we see the dual themes of fecundity and protection in the processions of relics through towns, fire-colored flowers, decorated (haw)thorne bushes, visiting holy wells and washing one’s self in Beltane dew, and dancing around maypoles—festivities that also included the presence of Morris dancers, Jack in the Green, Mummers, and hobby-horses (which, please note, is a slang word for prostitute)—as well as the lighting of bonfires (via friction) and relighting all hearth fires from the Beltane fire, the driving/jumping of cattle and people over the fires and, in some places, the ritual, symbolic burning of a human sacrifice (which may not have been so symbolic once upon a time).
All practices that are either aprotropaic in nature or act as sympathetic magic.
Additionally, modern, non-pagan celebrations of May Day have reemphasized the populist air of the Floralia by adding a civil component (probably due to the relative “downtime” that occurred at this time of year for agricultural and pastoral societies) and is when International Workers’ Day is celebrated.