May Day

While this may be one of the least religious festivals that we have recognized, it still plays an important part in the calendar. May 1st is a quarter day that marks the beginning of early summer. It is halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Just like Easter subsumed the spring equinox holiday, Pentecost generally has taken the place of May Day. Yet some celebrations remain.

Many traditions remember St. Walpurga or had special celebrations of Mary (this could be connected to the tradition of crowning a May queen). Some places that celebrate workers on May Day celebrate St. Joseph the Worker. No matter what the tradition, the celebrations all mark the end of the spring and the beginning of summer.

One of the traditions was to harvest flowers and make wreaths that could be burnt on the summer solstice. It was a day to celebrate the time of harvest is beginning. The first fruits of several crops are ready and celebrated. And livestock are blessed and sent out to pasture.

For May Day we recommend making a Beltane cake. This is a Celtic spice cake that is cherished over the generations. The cake also has some strange customs associated with it. One piece of cake would be marked with char or in some other way. Whoever got that slice was the carline. A group would then grab them and take them to the May Day fire of blessing and begin to throw the person in fire, until another group stepped in to save the unlucky soul. It was a passion play of sorts, reminding us, to use a Methodist/Pietist phrase, that we are all a “branch plucked from the burning.”

May Day, Central Park by Maurice Prendergast; 1901: Pencil and watercolor on paper; 35.24 x 50.48 cm

Beltane Cake


1 3/4 cups all-purpose Flour
1/2 tablespoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon Ground Cardamom
1/2 teaspoon Ground Cloves
3/4 tablespoon Ground Ginger
3 oz Unsweetened Chocolate
1/2 cup Milk
1/4 cup Brandy
1/2 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 1/2 sticks Butter
1 cup (packed) Dark Brown Sugar
3 Eggs
3/4 cups Amaretto Liqueur
Confectioner Sugar


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Grease a large bundt or spring-form pan or multiple mini-bundt pans. 
  3. Melt the 3 oz Unsweetened Chocolate using the double boiler method and set aside.
  4. In a bowl mix 1/2 cup Milk, 1/4 cup Brandy, and 1/2 teaspoon Vanilla Extract. In separate bowl mix 1 3/4 cups all-purpose Flour, 1/2 tablespoon Baking Powder, 1/4 teaspoon Nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon Ground Cardamom, 1/2 teaspoon Ground Cloves, and 3/4 tablespoon Ground Ginger.
  5. Using a hand or stand mixer, cream the 1 1/2 sticks Butter, then add 1 cup (packed) Dark Brown Sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the 3 eggs, one at a time, into the butter mixture and continue mixing.
  6. Add the cooled chocolate to the butter mixture. Add the flour mixture and milk mixture to the butter mixture a little at a time.
  7. Pour the combined mixture into the greased bundt pan or spring-form pan.
  8. Bake for approximately 50 minutes (less for mini bundt-pans, approx 30 mins), or until done, taking care not to overbake.
  9. Let cake cool for 20 minutes before removing from pan.
  10. Invert and remove from the pan. Using a skewer, pierce the cake with 10-12 holes, being careful not to pierce all the way through.
  11. Pour 1/3 of the Amaretto Liqueur over the cake. Wait 30 minutes for that to be absorbed, then pour another 1/3 Amaretto. Do this once again in 30 minutes.
  12. Dust the cake with confectioner’s sugar and enjoy.