In Wales the celebration of May Day derived from traditions that most people are familiar with as Beltane on the other side of the Irish Sea, but has roots in its own Celtic culture stretching back into olden times. In Wales this is the celebration of Calan Mai or sometimes called Calan Haf. Calan means the first of something like the beginning of a year or a month. Mai is Welsh for May and Haf means summer. These customs and celebrations as mentioned stretch back before the establishment of the Christian church in Wales and though frowned upon for centuries like Fairy Faith, the Church could not stamp them out and eventually just allowed them to go on. In Wales and the rest of Insular Celtic culture the year was approximately divided into half. That being summer and then on the opposite end Calan Gaeaf or the first of winter occurring on approximately November 1st.
Broadly, the celebration as with Beltane is a celebration of fertility and new growth and a time when the herds of cattle and the flocks of sheep would be turned out into fields now greening from the sleep of winter.
In Celtic times, bonfires would be lit and the herds and flocks driven between them for purification. People would leap the bonfires for the same reason and couples would hand in hand leap the fires to show their faith in each other. If there was disease in the herd or the flocks a calf or lamb would be thrown to the flames to ward off disease spreading to the rest of the herd or flock.
Now specifically in Wales the night before called Nos Galan or May Day’s Eve was a very important event. It was considered one of the great three ysbrydnos or spirit nights of the year. It was thought that on these special nights that the veil between this world and the Otherworld was very thin. Spirits and especially the Y Tylwyth Teg (literally the Fair Family) or the fairies would be about and the later especially would in rades (procession) move from their winter spots to their summer spots. People would then put Draenen Wen (White Thorn) what is known as Hawthorn or Hawthorn flowers in front of their homes to ward off the fairies or show that they meant friendship with the fairies and not be cursed with ill fortune for the herds, flocks and harvest. It was considered to be extremely bad luck to bring a Hawthorn into the house especially on this day as Hawthorn is sacred to the fairies and bringing in anything of Hawthorn was considered to be stealing from them.
The fairies though were known to steal cattle, sheep, spoil the milk and blight the harvest if upset. Thus, the driving of the cattle and flocks through the smoke was to ward off the fairies and in some cases the flocks and cattle were sprinkled with salt which was thought to help ward the fairies off.
Some traditions the lighting of the May bonfires would be done by nine men who would turn their pockets inside out and make sure there was no metal of any kind on them and then go to the woods to gather the wood. Again, this speaks back to Fairy Faith, as it was thought that turning one’s pockets out, or wearing one’s clothing inside out confused the fairies. Ensuring there was no metal ensured that there was no iron. The former would help hide the men and the later would hurt the fairies and going into the woods to take wood was going into their territory and stealing or hurting them would invite their curse and wrath bringing about sickness and failed harvest.
On the morning of Calan Mai, young men usually would then go about singing songs and going from house to house asking for favours and giving blessings and usually with a verse dedicated to the family of each house visited. These were called the Carolau Mai (May Carrols), Carolau Haf (Summer Carrols) or just Canu Haf (Summer Singing). In northern part of the Wales these songs would be carried out by twenty young men dressed all in white with ribbons attached to them. Except for two of the young men. One would be dressed garishly and would be the Fool. His job was to be the orator, the buffoon making jokes and bringing merriment to the households visited. The other was the Caid. Now the Cadi’r Haf (Caddy of Summer) would dress in a man’s surcoat and a woman’s petticoat, to represent that this was a transitional time of year. The Cadi would carry (but sometimes the Fool) the Cangen Haf (Summer Branch) usually of birch and decorated with silver watches, spoons and vessels that were donated by the village.
An example of a poem or carol from the 12th century goes:
The beginning of summer, fairest season;
Noisy are the birds, green the woods,
The ploughs are in the furrow, the ox at work,
Green the sea, the lands are many-coloured.
When the cuckoos sing in the tops of the fair trees
My despondency becomes greater;
The smoke is smarting, it is plain I cannot sleep.
Since my friends have passed away,
In hill, in vale, in islands of the sea,
In every way one goes,
There is no seclusion from the blessed Christ.
An echo from older times that is found in the Red Book of Hergest and collected in the Mabinogion is the fight between Gwyn ap Nudd who is a king of the Otherworld or the realm of the fairies and a member of one of King Arthur’s retinue Gwythyr fad Greidawl over a woman.
The rivalry was so intense that King Arthur made peace by decreeing that the two would meet every first day of May and fight for the hand of the woman until judgement day. A custom then mostly in the north of Wales would be the gware gwr gwylt (playing straw man) or sometimes called the crogi gwr gwellt (hanging straw man). A man that had lost his sweetheart to another man would make a man out of straw and put it someplace near where the girl lived. The straw man represented the new sweetheart and usually had a note pinned to it with the name of the rival and that one’s not so desirable qualities. This led to fights between the two at the May Fair in many cases. I some places two men would have a mock fight in which one would then use a shield decorated with sheep’s wool representing winter and the other with a shield decorated with greenery representing summer to show that summer was overcoming winter.
It was also on May Day that the custom of the Twmpath Chwarae or the village green was officially opened so that dances and sports in the evening could now take place including the Dawnsio Haf (Summer Dancing) which was usually quite lively.
So put out a bit of butter, or cream or honey for the fairies to show friendship on eve before May Day and sing lively on the morning. Summer has just begun!