Bringing in May: Celtic Recipes For Your Own May Day Feast

Ancient Celts ate and drank heartily during their traditional fire festival on the eve of May Day, which celebrated the return of the light half of the year. From the fulachta fiaolha (cooking pits of the Celtic tribes), this feast features organic flavors of the wild, with foods gathered from the seas, the forests, and the meadows.

| May/June 2001

  • Bundles of braised leeks and spring greens are fastened with leek stems.
    Photography by Joe Coca
  • Wine spiced with sweet woodruff leaves is a throwback to the ancient Druid practice of using the spring herb to mark winter’s end.
    Photography by Joe Coca
  • Wine spiced with sweet woodruff leaves is a throwback to the ancient Druid practice of using the spring herb to mark winter’s end.
    Photography by Joe Coca
  • Marking the end of the winter diet of salted meat and dried produce, Beltaine is a time for fresh greens and berries and celebrating nature’s rekindled generosity.
    Photography by Joe Coca
  • Wine spiced with sweet woodruff leaves is a throwback to the ancient Druid practice of using the spring herb to mark winter’s end.
    Photography by Joe Coca
  • Ancient Celts offered traditional oatcakes to animals and plants in return for a full harvest.
    Photography by Joe Coca
  • Warm goat cheese is surrounded by greens and fresh herbs and topped with mushrooms.
    Photography by Joe Coca

Beltaine (pronounced Bee-YAWL-tinnuh), is one of two pagan fire festivals in the Celtic year. Held on the eve of May Day, April 30, it marks the beginning of summer and the light half of the Celtic calendar, and it celebrates the return of life and fertility.

While the Irish-Gaelic word for May is Beltaine, the literal translation is “bright” or “brilliant fire,” derived from the bonfires lit in honor of Bel, the god of light, fire, and healing. The central fire or tein-eigen made from sacred oak was strictly maintained by Druids (the priestly sector of Celtic society). Humans leapt and danced through the embers, and cattle were driven through them as an act of purification. Often, a torch-led procession made its way around the fields to evoke fertility in the plants. So important was the fire that all hearth fires were extinguished so they could be rekindled from this sacred fire every year.

Themes of death, fertility, and rebirth are woven throughout the rites and rituals of Beltaine. According to tradition, the Great Father (sun) impregnates the Great Mother (earth), dies, and is reborn as her son (crops). The Maypole connects earth and sky, triggering the renewal of the growing season and spawning fertility dances held on the first day of May. “Bringing in the May” was a tradition of gathering herbs, flowers, and branches to represent the earth’s healing and fertile energies and distributing them at each house.

Beltaine marked the end of winter’s subsistence diet of salted meats and dried produce. Heralding spring, Beltaine offers berries, herbs, and fresh greens in the evening’s feast. A special oatcake or bannock made from eggs, milk, and oatmeal was eaten by all and offered to animals and plants in return for the promise of a full harvest. Beltaine embodied the fresh tastes from nature’s rekindled generosity.



A May Day Feast

WARM WILD MUSHROOMS WITH BAKED GOAT CHEESE

Serves 4



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