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Welsh May Day customs

BBC Wales History

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Wales has a wealth of May Day customs, superstitions and traditions that go back to the time of the Druids.

Known as Calan Mai or Calan Haf, the first day of May was an important time for celebration and festivities in Wales as it was considered to be the start of summer. Marking neither an equinox nor a solstice, May Day referred to the point in the year when herds would be turned out to pasture.

The lighting of fires were very much associated with the first of May. In Druidical days, fires for the Baltan, known also as Beltane, represented an opportunity for purification, to protect animals from disease. These fire-lighting ceremonies were carried out with a great deal of pomp and ceremony.

Mary Trevelyan, in her 1909 book Folk-lore And Folk-stories Of Wales, describes the preparations for the fire on May Eve in south Wales that took place right up until the mid 19th century:

"The fire was done in this way: Nine men would turn their pockets inside out, and see that every piece of money and all metals were off their persons. Then the men went into the nearest woods and collected sticks of nine different kinds of trees.

"These were carried to the spot where the fire had to be built. There a circle was cut in the sod and the sticks were set crosswise. All around the circle the people stood and watched the proceedings. One of the men would then take two bits of oak and rub them together until a flame was kindled."

According to Trevelyan, it was not unknown for a calf to be thrown on to a fire, proffered to stop prevent spreading within a particular herd. Sheep were also given to the summer fire in an attempt to halt was a disease was that prevalent within a particular flock.

May Eve was not just an opportunity for a healthy herd; it was a chance for divination, usually with the express intent of revealing who one's true love would be.

'Spirit nights', or ysprydnos, took place on May Eve. It was one of the three nights in the year when the world of the supernatural was closest to the the real world. These nights offered an opportunity for divination, usually with the express intent of revealing who one's true love would be.

Also on May Eve, villagers would gather hawthorn branches and flowers and use these to decorate the outside of their houses. It was believed to be unlucky to bring hawthorn blossoms into the house. In some parts of Wales mayflower (probably the cowslip) was collected. These customs celebrated the new growth and fertility of the season.

It is clear that May Day offered a chance for socialising and mirth. After hard, often isolating, winters this was a chance for socialising and celebrating.

In Anglesey and Caernarfonshire 'gware gwr gwyllt' - playing straw man - or 'crogi gwr gwellt' - hanging a straw man - were a common sight on May Eve.

A man who had lost his sweetheart to another man would make a figure out of straw and put it somewhere in the vicinity of where the girl lived. The straw man represented her new sweetheart and had a note pinned to it. However, such attention to a lady could foster jealousy, sometimes leading to fights.

Singing and dancing were an integral part of the celebrations with some of the songs sometimes being rather bawdy or sexual.

Below is a short clip from Cawl a Chan from 1977. This was a Welsh language popular music programme set in barn in Pembrokeshire. While the dancing is by no means bawdy it is a good example of dawnsio gwerin, Welsh folk dancing.

The maypole was an important part of Welsh May Day tradition. It was called 'codi'r fedwen', 'raising the birch', in south Wales, and 'y gangen haf', the summer branch, in the north.

In the south, the maypole was made of birch. It was painted different colours and the leader of the dancing would wrap his ribbons around the pole, followed by the other dancers until eventually the pole was covered in ribbons. The maypole would then be raised and the dancing would begin.

In north Wales 'cangen haf' took place. Up to 20 young men would go May dancing. All of the men would be dressed in white and decorated with ribbons,except for two who were were called the Fool and Cadi.

The Cadi would carry the 'cangen haf' which was often decorated with silver watches, spoons, and vessels borrowed from the people in the village. Singing and dancing, they would visit each house in the village asking for money.

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