Beltane is the second cross-quarter day in the Neopagan calendar, and occurs on or around May 1st. This is sometimes considered the second most important holiday to Samhain, and is in a lot of ways it’s mirror holiday. While Samhain celebrates death, the ending of the year, and the beloved dead, Beltane is a fertility festival, steeped in the coming new life of the earth and the return of flowers, as well as the promise of a good harvest. I have heard it said that Samhain is when the Otherworld comes closest to joining our world, and that Beltane is when our world is closest to joining the Otherworld.
Ancient Gaelic traditions include building fires and driving the livestock between them to bless them. Many other traditions, like maypole dancing, come from the Germanic cultures, making this Neopagan holiday a good blend of Indo European traditions. The name Beltane is, itself, Gaelic – the Germanic culture celebrated Walpurgis Night. There is a possible connection as well to the Roman festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers, though the festival of flowers was centered less on bonfires and more on flowers and drinking. (Drinking, of course, is likely common to all of these celebrations, but modern Neopagans are warned to be careful about combining alcohol with bonfire jumping.)
In the Neopagan Wheel of the Year, Beltane is when the Goddess and the God are celebrating their fertility and consummating their marriage. Common traditions are creating flower garlands, dancing a may-pole, building bonfires, having sex (consenting adults only), and generally celebrating the fact that Summer is on its way in, and the Earth’s fertility has resumed, and it’s not cold and snowy anymore. Less common are flower baskets (May baskets) left anonymously as gifts on people’s porches (which makes a nice counterpart to trick-or-treating at Samhain). The May morning dew is said to be miraculously healing and rejuvenating, leading to myths about bathing your face in it, or gathering it in special cloths.
Beltane, Walpurgis Night, May Day and other associated holidays are all celebrated widely, even into modern times in a lot of places, regardless of Christianization. In many places, May is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but the same celebrations (like giving baskets of flowers) are simply given new names and continued. In other places, people simply continue to build their bonfires and celebrate the coming of May, regardless of what tradition or religion they might be.
This is, in general, an extremely lighthearted and joyful celebration in modern times. It frequently gets connected with faeries and fey lore, and gives modern Neopagans a chance to dance, sing, drink, and make merry at the end of winter. This year, since the spring has been so cool and wet (and even, in some places, snowy) many US Neopagans are looking forward to Beltane and hoping that the weather will cooperate. Here on the Gulf Coast, the cooler weather has meant that things aren’t growing as fast as they usually do, so my celebration will include some extra oomph for my garden, so that it will be productive and fruitful before the heat of summer!