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April 25, 2019 3 min read

Historical Traditions of May Day in Wales

Calan Mai, or Calan Haf is the first day of May. Nos Galan Mai was May Days Eve. The first day of May was an important time for celebration and festivities in Wales and there are some superstitions and customs still practiced today that date back to Druid times.

More widely, Beltane is the Gaelic May Day festival celebrating fertility and new growth.  As a festival, it has mostly died out since the mid-20th century, but some customs continue today, and in many places, it is being revived as a cultural event. (even a Dr Who (Tom Baker) programme was based on Beltane, https://tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Beltane).  The Beltane fires that are traditionally observed represented purification and the banishing of disease and the ceremonies are extravagant with music costume and dancing.

Nos Galan

Here in Wales, history tells us that Nos Galan, May Day’s Eve was even more important than May Day itself. It was one of the three great ‘spirit nights’ (ysbrydnos) of the year. These were thought to be the three nights of the year that the veil to the spirit world was at its thinnest and people would use this to foretell who their true love would be. (The other two ysbrydnos nights being St John’s Eve (24th June) and Halloween (31st October).

As the darkness would approach on Nos Galan, bonfires were lit which would represent purification, ward off harmful spirits and banish disease. Until the mid-19th Centuries a calf or sheep might have been sacrificed to the fire as an attempt to prevent disease in the entire flock.

Calan Mai

May Day itself used to be known as Calan Haf, the first day of summer. At the opposite end of the season, the first of November was known as Calan Gaeaf. These two festivals divided the year into winter and summer and became the dates on which certain activities began or ended. Calan Mai was also the celebration of the coming summer. May Day is the day that farmers would turn their herd out to pasture.

As dawn broke on May Day, people in villages and surrounding farms would be woken by the singing of May carols. These songs were known as carolau Mai, carolau haf, (summer carols) or as canu haf, (summer singing). Summer dancing, and the singing of bawdy ‘Summer carols’ were popular, as lively groups meandered from house to house, accompanied by a fiddler or a harpist.  Often these songs would be quite explicit in nature, but basically, they were intended to be giving thanks for the season. The singers, if worthy, would be rewarded with food and drink.

Calen Haf was also a time where a mock fight would take place between two men representing Winter and Summer. The man dressed as Winter carried a stick of blackthorn and a shield with wool stuck on it to signify snow. The man dressed as summer would be adorned with flowers and ribbons and carry a wand made of willow with more flowers and decorations on it. The winter man would throw straw at the force of summer who would battle back with his wand, and branches of birch and fern. Of course, summer would always win the battle, and afterward, he would choose a May King and Queen who would be crowned before the festival began full of drinking, laughter, and games until the early hours of the morning.

Occasionally, in early spring in Anglesey and Caernarfonshire, ‘Crogi gwr gwellt’was a straw man that would be hanged near a woman by a man that wanted her to know he held her in his affections, and he would pin a note to it. This was a common sight on May Eve, and often this bold declaration would lead to fights in the street between jealous love rivals.

Twmpath Chware – namely the village green also would be officially opened on May Day. Village Greens are traditionally used for locals to gather and play sports, and on this day, the green would be decorated with branches of oak and people would dance around a mound with a harpist or fiddler playing in the centre. The Maypole that is more widely recognised in May Day traditions was very much an essential part of Welsh culture. It would be fashioned out of birch wood and painted bright colours, adorned with ribbons and hoisted into the air and dancing would commence. In North Wales, it was a slightly different method, called “Cangen haf” and up to twenty young men would dress in white with ribbons, except for two who would be named “Fool” and “Cadi.” The Cadi would carry the “Cangen Haf” which would be decorated with watches, spoons and silver items donated by the village folk. Singing and Dancing they would carry this through the village knocking on doors and asking for money as they did so.


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