Beltain / Calan Mai

Coming up soon is the first of May (May Day) and in the Gaelic parts of Ireland and Scotland that means the Celtic festival of Beltain, (Irish La Beltaine) to mark the beginning of summer, halfway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. But this is not just for the Irish and Scots, this was a European tradition and there is also the Welsh equivalent, Calan Mai or Calan Haf.

This was marked May Eve by lighting bonfires in South Wales up until the middle of the 19th century. BURNING STRAW MANOn that evening hawthorn (draenen wen or white-thorn), was gathered to decorate houses to celebrate new growth and fertility. On May Day itself, there was summer dancing or Dawnsio haf. in certain parts around a Maypole, with feasting and drinking of mead or metheglin (Shades of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings), sometimes made of herbs, including woodruff, a sweet-smelling herb to make the drinker merry and also act as a tonic for heart and liver. This change from Winter to Summer was also marked by a mock fight between the man representing Winter on one side with a blackthorn stick (Draenen ddu) and a shield with bits of wool on it to represent snow, and Summer, a man decorated with garlands of flowers and carrying a willow-wand which had spring flowers tied to it with ribbons.

GREEN MAN & MAY QUEENAfter the long fight, which Summer won, of course, the May King and Queen were chosen and crowned, and the festivities could start with feasting, dancing , games and drinking till the following day.

There was also a darker side to Calan Mai. In parts of North Wales there was the tradition of crogi gwr gwyllt, or hanging a straw man. A man who had lost his girlfriend to another would make a straw man and put it somewhere near the girl’s house. The straw man represented her new man and the less-than-complimentary contents of the note pinned to the effigy often lead to fights between the two men at the May Fair.

Also May Eve was considered an ysbrydonos, or spirit night, when the spirits of the dead were about and divination was possible. The divination took various forms, the twca or knife test walking round a church seven times, the Candle and pin test, the clothes drying test, the washing test and the pullet’s egg test, all concerned with a girl trying to get the spectre of her future husband to appear. Unfortunately, in some cases a coffin would appear which meant she would die an old maid, or the devil to take her to hell. Dangerous business!