Beltane is also known as: May Day, Calan Mai (Welsh = First day of May) and Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night in Scandinavia & N. Europe)

 Most commonly celebrated from the evening of 30 April to the evening of 01 May

What is Beltane?

Damh The Bard - Under a Beltane sun

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  • Beltane marks the beginning of Summer occuring half-way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.
  • In pastoral life it is traditionally the time when livestock held at the farmstead since last Samhain are driven back out to the summer pastures. A tradition that some farmers still uphold today.
  • Beltane is a festival of life. The fertility that was dramatically rising at the Spring Equinox now reaches its peak. The potential becomes conception and manifests itself in the abundent growth of all around.
  • The crowning of a ‘May Queen & King’ and the tradition of dancing around a ‘Maypole’ are May-day celebrations symbolic of fertility .
  • Beltane along with Samhain are the two biggest fire festivals of the year.
Dancing round the maypole - vintage photograph
Vintage Photograph of dancing around the Maypole

The Moon at Beltane

The Moon in May was traditionally called the ‘Mother’s Moon’ illustrating the peak of fertility at this time and temperatures warm enough for safely bearing young.It was also known as the ‘Bright Moon’ as it was believed that the Moon did appear brighter in May, possibly due to predominant atmospheric effects.

Bright Moon - Beltane

Calan Mai – Customs

Calan Mai is the May Day holiday held on 01st May in Wales.

Celebrations start on the evening before, known as May Eve, with bonfires; the night before (Nos Galan Mai) is considered an Ysbrydnos or “spirit night” when spirits are out and divination is possible.

The tradition of lighting bonfires celebrating this occasion happened annually in South Wales until the middle of the 19th century.

  • On Nos Galan Mai or May Eve, villagers gather hawthorn (Welsh: draenen wen, “white-thorn”) branches and flowers which they would then use to decorate the outside of their houses, celebrating new growth and fertility.
  • In Anglesey and Caernarfonshire it would be common on May Eve to have 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.
  • Being the time between Summer and Winter, Calan Haf would be the time to stage a mock fight between the two seasons. The man representing Winter carried a stick of blackthorn (Welsh: draenen ddu “black-thorn”) 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 underbrush at the forces of Summer who retaliated with birch branches, willow (Welsh: helygen) rods, and young ferns (Welsh: 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.
  • May Day was the time that the twmpath chwarae or “tump for playing” (a kind of village green) was officially opened. Through the summer months in some villages the people would gather on the twmpath chwarae 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”, these songs being often of a bawdy or sexual nature. 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.
  • Common drinks during Calan Mai festivities were 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.

Historical Context & Customs of Beltane

Beltane was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Irish the name for the festival day is Lá Bealtaine, in Scottish Gaelic Là Bealltainn and in Manx Gaelic Laa Boaltinn/Boaldyn. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh—and is similar to the Welsh Calan Mai.

Beltane is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature, and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology.

It marked the beginning of summer when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth.

Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers.

All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the aos sí. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire.

In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush: a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe.

Beltane celebrations had largely died out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event.

Dawnsio Gwerin (Welsh Folk Dancing)

Welsh Folk Music and Dance Bethel Dawnsio Gwerin Cymru Ensemble Dawnswyr Môn

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‘Codi’r Fedwen’, raising the birch (south Wales) – ‘Y Gangen Haf’, the summer branch, (North Wales). The Maypole

The maypole was an important part of Welsh May Day tradition. It was 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 was made of birch. It was painted different colours and the leader of the dancing would wrap his ribbons around the pole, followed by the other dancers until eventually the pole was covered in ribbons. The maypole would then be raised and the dancing would begin.

In north Wales ‘cangen haf’ took place. Up to 20 young men would go May dancing. All of the men would be dressed in white and decorated with ribbons,except for two who were were called the Fool and Cadi.

The Cadi would carry the ‘cangen haf’ which was often decorated with silver watches, spoons, and vessels borrowed from the people in the village. Singing and dancing, they would visit each house in the village asking for money.