In the Celtic calendar, Beltane (May Day) and Samhaim (Halloween) divide the year in half and are the two most important holidays. Beltane marked the start of summer – the day the cattle were brought to their summer pastures. It was a time of rejoicing and unrestrained sexuality, whether between the god and the goddess or between mere humans. The sexual imagery of the joyously decorated Maypole being thrust into mother earth is pretty clear.
The Celts counted days from sundown to sundown, not dawn to dawn as we do, which probably explains why so many of us have a harder time the eve of a holiday than on the holiday itself. The ceremonies started on May Eve with the extinguishing of all fires and the lighting of bonfires by the Druid priests. People stayed up all night and danced in the fields to ensure the crops’ fertility or went “a-maying” into the woods to ensure their own. At sunrise, home fires were lit from the sacred bonfire and then there were games and feasting.
Beltane (Beltaine, Belltaine, Bealtaine, Beltain, Beltine, Bealteine, Bealtuinn, Boaldyn), means “god’s fire,” and Bel, the sun god, is related linguistically to Belinos, Balor, Belenus, and Baal. The actual astrological date varies, like the solstices and equinoxes, and is usually around May 5. If Beltane is celebrated then, it is usually called “Old Beltane.”
The Saxons named May Eve after Walpurga, the goddess of May. The Church transformed this goddess into St. Walpurga, and thus we have Walpurgisnacht. They also substituted the cross for the maypole, renamed May Day Roodmas (rood means cross), and kept some of the traditions by having the congregation go into the fields after mass. The priest lit a fire and blessed the fields and the animals.
The Romans had a very similar three-day festival from dusk on April 28 through May first called Floriala, the Feast of Flowers. It seems that almost all ancient civilizations have a sexuality festival near the beginning of summer.