Eight Fascinating Welsh May Day Customs

It's May Day!

We know that this is a very special day in the traditional calendar, going back to the time of the Druids. It has origins in the Celtic festival Beltane – a day that marks the start of summer and a celebration of coming through a long, often isolating winter.  

So how was it celebrated here in Wales? Read the Welsh Otter guide to the wonderful May Day customs and legends in Wales:

1) Kick-starting summer

Known as Calan Mai or Calan Haf, the first day of May was an important time for celebrations and festivals in Wales, as it was considered the start of summer. May Day would be the time of year when herds would be turned out for pasture, and families would move from their homes from the valley (Hendre), to their summer pastures on higher land (the Hafod). 

2) Carol singing in Spring?

At the dawn of May Day people in villages and surrounding farms would be woken by May carol singers. They would visit each house, sometimes with a verse dedicated to the family. The aim of these visits was to bring good luck to each of the families, and to wish them a fruitful summer after the hardship of winter.

3) Watch out for the spirits….

Ysbrydnos’ (Spirit Nights) took place on May Eve, when the world of the supernatural was closest to the real world. Steps were taken to prevent witches from entering houses, for instance by drawing chalk crosses on every door as protection. In Monmouthshire crosses were fashioned from twigs, and in Carmarthenshire they used branches of mountain ash.

4) The magic of fire

Fire lighting was associated with the first of May in the times of the Druids.  Bonfires would ward off harmful spirits, ensure a fruitful summer and represented opportunities for purification and protecting animals from disease – a more extreme version of spring cleaning!

Rituals that were meant to bring good luck in the year ahead included: driving cattle between fires, leaping three times over a fire, and putting ashes in shoes as a form of protection. Ashes were thought to guard against disease and had magical properties.

6) Fortune telling

Fancy a chance to reveal your true love?  One custom involved a young woman placing a shoulder of mutton under her pillow, with nine holes in it. Her shoes were placed at the foot of the bed in the shape of a letter T, and a spell was chanted over them as she dreamed of the man she was to marry…. If only it was that easy!

7) Beware hawthorn blossom….

Villagers would gather hawthorn branches and flowers to use as decorations, these were only kept outside though, as it was believed to be unlucky to bring hawthorn blossoms into the house. Mayflower (or Lily of the Valley) was collected in some places in Wales to celebrate new growth and fertility. An older custom which survived till the 1860s involved the young men of the parish decorating large bouquets of rosemary with white ribbons at the bedroom windows of maidens they admired.

8) May dancing

Singing and dancing were an integral part of the celebrations, usually involving dancing in circles between partners in a variety of combinations- a style of dancing that is still done in Eisteddfods across Wales each year. The twmpath chwarae or "tump for playing" (a kind of village green) was officially opened as a location for dancing and games.

Of course, a traditional May across the UK is synonymous with maypole dancing.  And this was certainly the case in parts of Wales – although it is hard to track where it originated. A maypole was painted different colours and the leader of the dancing could wrap his ribbons around the pole, followed by the other dancers until it was covered in ribbons. It was ceremoniously raised and then the dancing would commence.

A varied form of the same tradition prevailed in Tenby, young people would ‘thread the needle’ whilst dancing round various decorated maypoles in the town. This would involve between fifty and a hundred winding their way from one pole to another.

In north Wales ‘cangen haf’ took place. Up to 20 young men would go may dancing, accompanied by a Welsh harp, a fiddle or sometimes both. It has been compared to the Mari Lwyd tradition. They would all be dressed in white and ribbons, some were dressed as women, all except for the Fool and Cadi. The Cadi would carry the ‘cangen haf’ which was decorated with trinkets, spoons, vessels, and watches borrowed by the Village people. They would visit each house asking for donations. It was the fool’s job to perform tomfoolery and generally create as much merriment as possible.