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Celtic Well> E-Journal> Beltane

Hawthorn leafWelsh Customs for Calan Haf

(Left, a hawthorn leaf, whose branches and flowers were used in Wales to decorate the outside of houses during Calan Haf.)

By Hilaire Wood

The first day of May in Wales is known as Calan Mai or Calan Haf, the first day of summer, in the same way that the first of November was known as Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter. The celebrations always began the evening before, May Eve being one of the ysprydnos or ‘spirit nights’ (along with the evening before November 1st and St John’s Day) when all sorts of spirits and supernatural forces were abroad, and divination— usually with the aim of discovering who one’s sweetheart would be—was carried out.

Bonfires were lit on May Eve, in South Wales until almost the middle of the nineteenth century and I can do no better than quote the words of an informant to Marie Trevelyan at the beginning of the 20th century who still remembered the practice:

    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. This was applied to the sticks and soon a large fire was made. Sometimes two fires were set up, side by side. These 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 out.

    The greatest fire of the year was the eve of May, or May 1, 2, or 3. The Midsummer fire was more for the harvest... I have also heard my grandfather and father say that in times gone by the people would throw a calf in the fire when there was any disease among the herds. The same would be done with a sheep if there was anything the matter with the flock. I can remember myself seeing cattle being driven between the fires ‘to stop the disease spreading’. When in later times it was not considered humane to drive the cattle between the fires, the herdsmen were accustomed to force the animals over the wood ashes to protect them against various ailments.... May fires were always started with the faggots of the previous year and midsummer from those of the last summer. It was unlucky to build a midsummer fire from May faggots. People carried the ashes left after these fires to their homes and a charred brand was not only effectual against pestilence but magical in its use. A few of the ashes placed in a person’s shoes protected the wearer from any great sorrow or woe.1

Also on nos calan Mai or May Eve, the villagers would go gathering hawthorn (draenen wen, literally whitethorn) branches and flowers which they would then use to decorate the outside of their houses. It was unlucky to bring hawthorn blossoms into the house. In other parts of Wales it was the Mayflower (probably the cowslip, briallu Mair) that was gathered, or rowan (cerdinen) and birch (bedwen) twigs. These customs celebrated the new growth and fertility of the season.2

A custom which was still carried out in Anglesey and Caernarvonshire in the middle of the 19th century on May Eve, was that of 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.

An account of May Day itself comes from a 19th century native of Denbighshire, in the north, who became a Baptist minister in Monmouthshire in the south. He described a Maypole custom 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, always of birch, was painted different colours and the leader of the dance would place his ribbons around the pole, followed by the other participants until the pole was covered in ribbons. Then it was raised and the dance began. This custom differs very little from those of England except that the pole was always birch and may have been smaller.

In the North, there was a different custom, the cangen haf, whereby up to 20 young men would go May dancing, all of them dressed in white decorated with ribbons, except for two who were called the Fool and Cadi (an effeminate male figure in a man’s coat and woman’s petticoat) or Cadi’r haf. Other accounts mention only the Cadi who took on the role of "marshal, orator, buffoon and money collector." The significance of the Cadi, a figure who is neither man nor woman but partakes of both, is that of a figure who looks both ways and is therefore a transitional figure, fitting at this time in the cycle of the year when a new season is being ceremonially ushered in. The Cadi or the Fool would carry the cangen haf which was often beautifully decorated with silver watches, spoons, and vessels borrowed from the village folk. There were usually around 12 dancers with a harpist or fiddler or both, who went from house to house dancing and singing and afterwards asking for a contribution of money. Opinion differs as to whether this was in origin a Welsh custom or whether it had spread from England. Certainly the Welsh folk celebrated it enthusiastically.

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. 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.

This 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

I 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.

I heard the blackbird cock
Singing days ago
Better still I heard the cuckoo
I know that Mayday is not far off.

I 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.

A 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.

Upon 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.

I saw a rich and comfortable gentleman
Gathering together his yokes
And his muck fork and his hay hook
Going to the fair on Mayday.

I saw a showy woman on her behind
Grazing oat shoots
I would get to hunt every afternoon
The bounty of Mayday is fair.

I saw barley shoots joyous
I saw goslings
And chickens and a foal
And what will stop Mayday coming now

I saw a crow's nest being torn down
And meadows being prepared
I saw the big road being repaired
Mayday cannot be long.

(Translation courtesy of George Jones)

The drink that was imbibed at these festivities was usually metheglin or mead. Sometimes it was made of herbs, including woodruff, a sweet-smelling herb which was often put in wine in times past to make a man merry and act as a tonic for the heart and liver. Elderberry and rhubarb wines were popular and the men also liked various beers.

Finally, here is a Welsh seasonal poem, thought to be from the 12th century, which celebrates Calan haf, or kyntefin, the beginning of summer, in the first verse. The beauty of the burgeoning land is contrasted with the death and loss the writer experiences at the passing away of friends:

    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.

Further Reading

Thomas Parry, Canu Rhydd Cynnar, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1932, pp. 404-5

J. Ganz, trans., The Mabinogion, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1976.

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, 1987.

Marie Trevelyan. Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, EP Publishing, Wakefield, 1973.


  1. With minor variations, Scottish records also mention all the customs described here: the nine men kindling the fire ritualistically, the eating of flat cakes, interaction with the fire by the one who receives the marked cake, and sacrifice of an animal. The assimilation of some customs from May Eve to Midsummer has been noted in Ireland, too. See Danaher, The Year in Ireland.
  2. Danaher notes that in Ireland one also found variation of which types of flora were suitable. In some parts, garlands of flowers were used; in others, branches that had just come into leaf were hung on the house.

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