Traditional May Day Celebrations in Wales
Calan Mai is the celebration of coming summer and it is the time when traditionally farmers would turn their herd out to pasture.
May Day itself is known as Calan Haf - the first day of summer - and it is the opposite end of the season to Calan Gaeaf - the first day of winter. The evenings before these days are also very important as they are two of the three nights of the year when the veil between the spirit world and our world is meant to be at its thinnest. The three spirit nights are called Ysbrydnos and they are April 30th, October 31st and St John's Eve on 24th June. As darkness approaches bonfires are lit to represent purification and to banish harmful spirits.
On May Eve, in some places in North Wales, a Crogi Gwr Gwellt (a straw man ) would be hanged near a woman by a man that wanted to know he held her in his affections and he would pin a note to it. This was a common site on May Eve and often led to fights in the streets between jealous love rivals. Yong men also placed of bunches rosemary and white ribbon on the bedroom windows of the women they admired which was a more placid custom.
As dawn broke on May Day people in the villages and surrounding farms would be woken by the sound of singing. The songs that were sung from house to house were summer carols giving thanks for the season to come. Groups of people with a fiddler or harpist would sing and be rewarded with food and drink.
Dancing was also a big part of the day and the village green would be opened on May Day and decorated with branches of oak and hawthorn. A maypole made of birch and painted bright colours adorned with ribbons would be hoisted on the green and dancing would commence. Sometimes a rival village would steal the pole away.
In North Wales up to 20 young men dressed in bright ribbons would carry a large pole - a Cangen Haf - around the village houses decorated with all manner of silverware donated by the local population. This would be carried through the village for money at all the doors.
Calan Haf is also the day when 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 attached to represent snow. The man dressed as summer would be decorated with flowers and ribbons and carry a stick of willow . They would have a mock battle and summer would always win and then choose a May King or Queen before the festival began full of drinking and feasting.
The origin of this custom could lie in an Arthurian tale told by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The tale tells of Gwynn ap Nudd, the ruler of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, and also king of the Tylwyth Teg, who are the Welsh Fairy folk. He captures a beautiful lady of King Arthur's Court called Creiddylad. However, her brother, Gwythr ap Greidwal retrieves her and Gwynn ap Nudd and he start to fight. King Arthur intervenes by arranging a duel once a year on Calan Mai until the end of time. On Judgement day the victor would keep Creiddylad forever. Unfortunately for Creiddylad she has to remain at her father's house unmarried until that May Day to end all May days!