Historical Traditions Of May Day In Wales

By Kathryn Slade Calendar

When we talk of May Day celebrations, we tend to think of children dancing around a maypole, ribbons clutched in their hands, or of Morris Dancers, bells jingling, performing on village greens. In many communities there will be village fetes, where the beer flows freely and trestle tables sag under the weight of sandwiches and cakes.

Here in Wales, all those things took place, but our ancestors knew that May Eve was even more important than May Day itself. It was one of the three great ‘spirit nights’ (ysbrydnos) of the year, when supernatural powers were unleashed and the spirits of the dead roamed abroad. The other two nights were the Eve of St John celebrated on 24th June, and Hallowe’en and on each of them it was wise to protect yourself with rituals and customs that had been practised for centuries

On the darkening hilltops and in fields bonfires blazed. They were meant to ward off harmful spirits and to ensure a fruitful summer, but the proper rituals had to be observed in the lighting of the fires.

In each parish, nine men would be chosen to build the bonfire. They would turn out their pockets so that all money and every piece of metal were off their persons. Metal, especially iron, was a tricky, magical creation and could affect the success of the whole project. The men then went into the nearest woodland and gathered sticks from nine different trees. The sticks were carried to the spot where the bonfire was to be built. A circle was cut into the grass and the sticks were set crosswise in the circle. One of the men took two bits of oak and rubbed them together until a flame was kindled. From this the sticks were lit. Often two fires were made, some yards apart.

The assembled village watched this whole procedure. Round cakes of oatmeal and the same number of brown meal were split into four pieces and placed in a small flour bag and everyone present had to pick one out. The last piece left was the bag-holder’s. Those who picked out a piece of brown meal cake were obliged to leap three times over the fire or to run thrice between the two fires. This custom made sure of a good harvest. Those who had chosen the oatmeal cakes applauded the others and sang and danced, no doubt out of relief.

Cattle and sheep might also be driven between the fires in order to prevent the spread of any diseases; sometimes, more humanely, the animals might be herded across the cold ashes of the fires to protect them against any ailments. 

The ashes of the fires were carried home in the belief that they protected against disease and had magical properties. A few ashes placed in a shoe protected the wearer against any great sorrow or woe.

The number nine was a number of great magical significance. It was thought of as a circular number because if you multiply it by another number and then add the numbers of the total you achieve, it always makes nine. For instance, 9 times 3 is 27; add 2 and 7 and you have 9. Similarly, 9 times 5 is 45; add 4 and 5 together and it’s 9 again, and so on through all the nine times table. Even 9 times 11 conforms to this rule in that it produces 99; add 9 and 9 and you have 18 and adding these digits gives another 9.

To the medieval mind, this was proof of its supernatural power; especially as 9 is a product of 3 times 3, itself a magical conjunction of numbers. And as the faithful would have known many centuries ago, there were nine orders of angels in Heaven, whilst in the Old Testament there was King Og, a devilish figure who was nine cubits tall.

Even Shakespeare drew upon the symbolism of nine; in Macbeth, he describes the three witches thus:

The weird sisters, hand in hand ,

Posters of the sea and land,

Thus do go about, about:

Thrice to thine and thrice to mine

And thrice again to make up nine.

Peace! The charm’s wound up.

But let’s get back to celebrating May Eve. It was such a powerful night of the year that as darkness fell divination was practised. There were many methods of divination; most to do with discovering whom a person was likely to marry in the coming year. One rather peculiar custom involved a young women placing under her pillow a shoulder of mutton, with nine holes bored in it. Her shoes were placed at the foot of the bed in the shape of a letter T. A spell was chanted over them and the young lady retired to bed. If her rather lumpy ‘pillow’ allowed any sleep at all she would dream of the man she was to marry.

May Day itself used to be known as Calan Haf, the calend of summer and was the day on which summer officially began. At the opposite end of the season, the first of November was known as Calan Gaeaf, the winter calend. These two festivals divided the year into winter and summer, and became the dates on which certain activities began or ended. It was usual to hire farm servants for yearly or six-monthly periods, beginning on May Day or the first or thirteenth of November. At those times it was customary to see men and women gathering at certain locations, often with the tools of their trade held in their hands, in the hope of being employed by the farmers who came to inspect them. In some areas, farm and house tenancies came to an end on May Day.

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). Sometimes the expression canu dan y pared, or ‘singing under the wall’ was used.

At each house visited by the singers, congratulations would be exchanged on the approach of summer and the hoped-for good harvest. If the singers were really on the ball, they would include in their songs a verse or two applicable to each of the families they visited. It was worth doing so, because the delighted hosts would invite everyone in for food and drink.

The houses themselves would be carefully decorated and in the larger ones, the maids might have decked out the windows with roses, lilies and lavender.

At some point in the day, the inhabitants of each community made their way to the village green or a nearby field to watch the raising of the May Pole, which was often fashioned from the trunk of a birch tree. It was known as the ‘summer birch’ - y fedwen haf and the custom of raising it was called ‘raising the birch‘ - Codi’r Fedwen.

In south Wales, the pole was painted in different colours. Whilst it was on the ground it would be decorated with ribbons and coloured papers and when it was covered from end to end, it was ceremoniously raised. Dancing then took place, including one called ‘Thread the needle’.

Although most of the descriptions we have of May Pole customs date from the 18th century, there are much earlier references. The poet Gruffudd ab Abba, who died about 1344, wrote a cywydd to a birch tree that had been cut down and was transported from its native hillside to Llanidloes to serve as a pole. It begins:

 

Green birch whose hair’s unsightly.

You’re long exiled from the slope.

Fine lance fostered in woodlands,

Green veil, you’ve betrayed your grove.

 

The people of Tenby especially enjoyed Maying time. On May Eve, they would throng the streets, each person carrying boughs of hawthorn in full blossom and decorated with flowers. These would be placed outside the windows of the houses, but were never brought indoors. This was bad luck, and for the same reason a piece of broken hawthorn blossom lying in the road was left where it was.

On that night, the King and Queen of the May, their clothing and hair bright with flowers, paraded through the town and everyone they encountered was expected to donate candles, or money to buy them, which were kept until nightfall. As darkness fell, the candles were lit in order to illuminate the May bush, around which people danced for as long as the lights lasted. An enormous bonfire of furze had also been prepared and this was fired as the last of the candles guttered out. As the flames took hold the May bush was thrown on to burn.

Categories:Celebrations, History, Spring

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