I bought a lovely jacket from SuSu MaMa last year and ever since have subscribed to her newsletter. Today's one turned up with this lovely simple explanation of what Beltane is. I was going to write a post on it in more detail after a friend asked me about it but thought I'd post this instead as it works much better!
"Spring has now properly sprung and on the 1st of May we celebrate Beltane, one of the great Celtic fire festivals. The word ‘Beltane’ comes from the Gaelic for the month of May. In Irish mythology, the beginning of the summer season started at Beltane when the herds were driven into the open pastures. Great bonfires would mark a time of purification and transition, heralding in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, and were accompanied with ritual acts to protect the people from any harm by Otherworldly spirits. Like its seasonal opposite, the festival of Samhain, Beltane was also a time when the Otherworld was seen as particularly close at hand. Sources from around the 10th century state that the Druids of the community would create need-fires on top of a hill and drive the village's cattle through the fires to purify them and bring luck. Boughs of juniper were sometimes thrown on the fires to add an additional element of purification and blessing to the smoke. People would also pass between the two fires to purify themselves. If a man was planning a long journey or dangerous undertaking, he would leap backwards and forwards trice through the fire for luck. As the fire sunk low, girls would jump across it to procure good husbands; pregnant women would step through it to ensure an easy birth, and children were also carried across the smoldering ashes. When the fire died down, the embers were thrown among the sprouting crops to protect them. Each household would carry some embers back to kindle a new fire in their hearth. Beltane was a time of fertility and unbridled merrymaking, when young and old would spend the night making love in the Greenwood. In the morning, they would return to the village bearing huge budding boughs of hawthorn (the may-tree) and other spring flowers with which to bedeck themselves, their families, and their houses. They would process back home, stopping at each house to leave flowers, and enjoy the best of food and drink that the home had to offer. In every village, the maypole—usually a birch or ash pole—was raised, and dancing and feasting began. Festivities were led by the May Queen and her consort, the King who was sometimes Jack-in-the-Green, or the Green Man, the old god of the wildwood. They were borne in state through the village in a cart covered with flowers and enthroned in a leafy arbour as the divine couple whose unity symbolized the sacred marriage of earth and sun."