Wales, May 1 is a holiday known as Calan Mai or Calan Haf, which
means the first day of summer. Celebrations start on the evening
before, known as May Eve, with bonfires; as with Calan Gaeaf,
the night before (Nos Galan Mai) is an Ysbrydnos, or "spirit
night," when spirits are out and about and divination is
possible. The tradition of lighting Midsummer bonfires happened
annually in south Wales until the middle of the 19th century.
It is the Welsh equivalent of the Goidelic Beltane.
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. This was applied to the
sticks and soon a large fire was made. Sometimes two fires were
set up, side by side.
fires, whether one or two, were called coelcerth or bonfire.
Round cakes of oatmeal and brown meal were split in four and
placed in a small flour-bag, and everybody present had to pick
out a portion. The last bit in the bag fell to the lot of the
bag-holder. Each person who chanced to pick up a piece of brown
meal cake was compelled to leap three times over the flames,
or to run thrice between the two fires, by which means the people
thought they were sure to have a plentiful harvest. Shouts and
screams of those who had to face the ordeal could be heard ever
so far, and those who chanced to pick up the oatmeal portions
sang and danced and clapped their hands in approval... As a
rule, no danger attended these curious celebrations, but occasionally
somebody’s clothes caught fire, which was quickly put
• On Nos Galan Mai or May Eve, villagers gather hawthorn
(draenen wen, literally whitethorn) branches and flowers which
they would then use to decorate the outside of their houses,
celebrating new growth and fertility.
• In Anglesey and Caernarvonshire it would be common on
May Eve to have gware gwr gwyllt (playing straw man) or crogi
gwr gwellt (hanging a straw man). A man who had lost his sweetheart
to another man would make a man 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. Often the situation
led to a fight between the two men at the May Fair.
• There are echoes here of the fight mentioned in the
Mabinogion story of "Culwch and Olwen" between Gwyn
ap Nudd (mythological king of the Otherworld) and Gwythyr fab
Greidawl. Creiddylad, described as "the most majestic girl
in Britain or the three offshore islands" had gone to Gwythyr,
but before he could sleep with her, Gwyn ap Nudd carried her
off by force. Arthur made peace between the two men by decreeing
that Creiddylad would stay in the house of her father and every
Calan Mai the two men would fight for her; whoever was the winner
on the Judgement day would take her. This story itself probably
echoes an older ritual where the god of the winter half of the
year fights with the god of the summer half, in this case, in
order to win the goddess of sovereignty or the land. Marie Trevelyan
also records that an aged Welshman described to her a battle
fought on Calan Mai in South Wales between Summer and Winter.
The man representing Winter carried a stick of blackthorn (draenen
ddu) and a shield that had pieces of wool stuck on it to represent
snow. The man representing Summer was decorated with garlands
of flowers and ribbons and carried a willow-wand which had spring
flowers tied on it with ribbons. A mock battle took place in
which the forces of Winter threw straw and dry underwood at
the forces of Summer who retaliated with birch branches, willow
(helygen) rods, and young ferns (rhedyn). Eventually the forces
of Summer would win and a May King and Queen were chosen and
crowned, after which there was feasting, dancing, games and
drinking until the next morning.
• May Day was the time that the twmpath chwarae was officially
opened. The Welsh equivalent of the Irish ceili is a twmpath.
Through the summer months in some Welsh villages, the people
would gather on the twmpath chwarae, (literally, tump for playing),
the village green, in the evenings to dance and play various
sports. The green was usually situated on the top of a hill
and a mound was made where the fiddler or harpist sat. Sometimes
branches of oak decorated the mound and the people would dance
in a circle around it.
• Dawnsio haf, summer dancing, was a feature of the May
Day celebration, as was carolau Mai, May carols, also known
as carolau haf, summer carols or canu dan y pared, singing under
the wall (songs being often of a bawdy or sexual nature). The
singers would visit families on May morning accompanied by a
harpist or fiddler, to wish them the greetings of the season
and give thanks to "the bountiful giver of all good gifts."
If their singing was thought worthy, they would be rewarded
with food, drink, and possibly money.
is an example of a May carol translated from the early modern
Welsh which evokes the signs of the beginning of summer in the
countryside, and the sexual implications:
A Carol for Mayday
have a great longing for a girl
Whose love has penetrated my breast
She swears to me
That I will get to see her on Mayday.
heard the blackbird cock
Singing days ago
Better still I heard the cuckoo
I know that Mayday is not far off.
saw leaves along the tops of the bushes
I saw lambs and kids
The nightingale warbling night and day
I know that Mayday is near.
new gate on an oat field
And horses being brought from their stables
And tied in the corner where the rye is
But blessed is Mayday.
my oath I saw the swallow
Nesting at the top of the chimney
The girls dressed up beautifully
That is the sign of Mayday.
I saw last night a fair evening
The cows being milked outside
Small calves playing merrily
Those are the signs of Mayday.
saw a rich and comfortable gentleman
Gathering together his yokes
And his muck fork and his hay hook
Going to the fair on Mayday.
saw a showy woman on her behind
Grazing oat shoots
I would get to hunt every afternoon
The bounty of Mayday is fair.
saw barley shoots joyous
I saw goslings
And chickens and a foal
And what will stop Mayday coming now
saw a crow's nest being torn down
And meadows being prepared
I saw the big road being repaired
Mayday cannot be long.
courtesy of George Jones)
• Trefor M. Owen. Welsh Folk Customs. Gomer Press,
• Marie Trevelyan. Folklore and Folk Stories of Wales.
EP Publishing Ltd, Wakefield 1973
• Hilaire Wood, http://www.applewarrior.com/celticwell/ejournal/beltane/wales.htm
Thomas Parry, Canu Rhydd Cynnar, Cardiff: University
of Wales Press, 1932, pp. 404-5
J. Ganz, trans., The Mabinogion, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth,
Rhiannon Ifans, Sers a Rybana. Astudiaeth o'r canu gwasael
(Llandysul: Gomer, 1983), pp. 189-209.
Kenneth Jackson. Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry,
Llanerch, Felinfach, 1995.
Trefor M. Owen. Welsh Folk Customs, Gomer Press, Llandysul,
Marie Trevelyan. Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales,
EP Publishing, Wakefield, 1973.