Beltaine is one of two Celtic fire festivals, a cross-quarter sabbat, and is sometimes referred to as Cetsamhain, meaning "opposite Samhain," because it falls opposite to Samhain in the Wheel of the Year. Likewise, where Samhain is a festival recognizing and honoring the necessity of Death, Beltaine is a celebration of life and fertility returning to the world.
In the Celtic countries the festival was known by other names, such as Beltaine in Ireland (which means in Irish Gaelic "May"), Bealtunn (which means in Scots-Gaelic "May Day") in Scotland, Shenn do Boaldyn on the Isle of Man, and Galan Mae in Wales. The Saxons called this day Walpurgisnacht, the night of Walpurga, Goddess of May. Like Brigid, the Church changed this goddess into St. Walpurga and attached a similar legend to her origin. Also known as May Eve, this festival marks the beginning of Summer – the growing season.
The word "Beltane" literally means "bright" or "brilliant fire," and refers to the bonfires lit by a presiding Druid in honor of the proto-Celtic god variously known as Bel, Beli, Balar, Balor or Belenus. Bel, the god of light, fire and healing, had Sun-like qualities, but was not purely a Sun god, as the Celts were not specifically Sun worshippers.
They celebrated Beltaine with dancing, feasting, and "greenwood marriages." Men and women would disappear into the woods throughout the night for their own personal celebrations; these being understood to be unions through which the Horned God impregnated the Goddess and brought fertility to the earth, through the physical forms of man and woman. These unions were a celebration of life and love, accomplished to ensure the fertility and fruitfulness of the land, animals, and of themselves. Further, any babies born of greenwood marriages were considered children of the Lord and Lady, specially blessed by Them, and were seen as children of the whole village, rather than of just two parents.
For modern Pagans, Beltaine is the time of union and pleasure; of celebrating the returning warmth of the sun, and the greening of Earth. It is about the reconciliation of opposites through love, and the fruitfulness that arises from this reconciliation. It is a time of bonfires and feasting, drumming and dancing; a time of brightly colored ribbons woven around that ancient phallic symbol, the maypole. And it is a time to renew our commitments to the land, to love, and to each other.