May Day has arrived and it brings back memories of early days spent in England, where my village green always had a pretty May pole display, the streams of sunlight breaking through departing cloud covered wintry skies. Intrigued, I wanted to find out more about the actual history behind the day and was quite surprised to discover that although the holiday’s origins are ancient, and have little to do with labour or politics.
According to the Smithsonian magazine, May Day as it is known today derived historically from the Celtic festival of Beltane and was a celebration of fertility and renewal. Huge bonfires were lit, around which people danced and feasted.
A highlight was the serving of the Beltane cake, which had a scalloped edge and held a special ( and rather morbid!) surprise for the person who received a hidden slice of charcoal blackened piece.
What happened next is described in the 1922 book The Golden Bough, by Sir James
Towards the close of the entertainment, the person who officiated as master of the feast produced a large cake baked with eggs and scalloped round the edge, called am bonnach bea-tine—i.e., the Beltane cake. It was divided into a number of pieces, and distributed in great form to the company. There was one particular piece which whoever got was called cailleach beal-tine—i.e., the Beltane carline, a term of great reproach. Upon his being known, part of the company laid hold of him and made a show of putting him into the fire; but the majority interposing, he was rescued. And in some places they laid him flat on the ground, making as if they would quarter him. Afterwards, he was pelted with egg-shells, and retained the odious appellation during the whole year. And while the feast was fresh in people’s memory, they affected to speak of the cailleach beal-tine as dead.’
Essentially, the person who received the darkened slice of cake would pretend to sacrifice himself into a fire and surrounding friends would act out the theatrics of rescuing him/her. The rest of the evening would be spent speaking in hushed tones around that certain individual, as if they were truly dead.
Fraser McAlpine of BBC America describes how this day was heavily coveted in ritual and this extended deep into the rural farmlands. In parts of 19th century Scotland and Ireland, farmers would drive their cattle between two Beltane fires, and sometimes made to jump through the smoke in order to ensure their future health.
In the Isle of Man people were encouraged to breath in the smoke too, for the same reason. And the ashes from those fires will have been sprinkled on the budding crops to ensure a decent harvest.
Historian reveal these ancient pagan rituals that are still celebrated, more now for the cultural, artistic theatricals and musical influences than any true sacrificial element. The Beltane Fire festival still traditionally take place every year in Edinburgh, bringing back some of the otherworldly like rituals re-enacted in full flair drama and theatre…
There is always something new to learn, ancient and fascinating stories from different cultures buried deep in history that are waiting to be revealed. I’m obsessed with the detail, especially if it is anything to do with food symbolism.
Studying traditional recipes for Beltane cake – these are basic sponges, heavily spiced with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cocoa – a significant nod to the fertility aspect of May Day. On baking and cooling, this cake is finally soaked with Amaretto liqueur and finished with a soft dusting of cocoa powder, reflecting the historical association of food aphrodisiacs related to this celebration.
Well, I’m quite enthused by all of this. The recipe actually sounds quite delicious to me and I will be experimenting with this later today…so why not try something different, from another age and a completely different world…and don’t forget your surprise slice of blackened cake to hide within!!