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May 1, 2016

The modern western calendar tells us that summer arrives in the northern hemisphere this year on June 20th — the summer solstice. It’s the longest day of the year, and the Sun stands farthest north for the year as well.

In ages past, though, many calendars had a less direct link to the solstices and equinoxes. The seasons began not on these dates, but about halfway between them. Such dates are known as “cross-quarter” days. And in the calendars of the ancient British Isles, one of those days was commemorated on May 1st. In Ireland and Scotland it was known as Beltane, while in other regions it was known as May Day.

The rituals of Beltane celebrated the end of the cold, dark time of year and the beginning of the long, warm days of summer.

The centerpiece of Beltane was a village bonfire — or perhaps two bonfires. The fires themselves chased away the darkness and ushered in the light of summer. The flames and smoke were thought to have special protective powers, so villagers doused the fires in their homes, then relit them using a torch from the bonfire. They also paraded their livestock past the fires on the way to their summer fields — providing a bit of good luck for the start of the summer growing season.

These rituals were part of a deep connection to the cycles of nature, and especially the Sun — which warms and lights the summer no matter when the season officially kicks off.

Tomorrow: Dental hygiene from the stars.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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