Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Before there was Mayday there was May Day. Celebrations in and around the first of May predate Christianity in Europe. In the Gaelic countries of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man this was known as Beltane. In modern Irish the month of May is known as "Mi na Bealtaine" and May Day itself is "La Bealtaine". On the eve of Beltane ("Oidhche Bealtaine") fires were lit on hills of ritual and political significance. This custom has survived to today only in parts of County Limerick and places in the diaspora. Hearth fires were to be re-lit from this central fire. May Day was also celebrated by the hanging of May Boughs from the doors and windows of houses and the erection of May Bushes in yards, decorated with ribbons, flowers, garlands and coloured egg shells. This May Bush has survived to today in parts of Newfoundland and the American east coast. The actual date of the traditional Celtic celebration of May Day is uncertain. The Celtic year revolved around both a lunar and a solar calender so it may have been celebrated on the nearest full Moon to the midpoint between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.
Because of its "midpoint" status Beltane, like it's autumn counterpart Samhain-now known as Halloween, was a time when the Celts believed that the otherworld was particularly close. The festival celebrated the beginning of summer when cattle were led to summer pasture. The fires of Beltane were often twin, and cattle were driven between the two fires to purify them and bring them luck. People would also pass between the two, and there is a Scots Gaelic expression "Eadar do theine Bhealltainn" which means "between the two fires of Beltaine". The festival is spelt 'Bealtaine' in modern Irish; 'Bealltainn' is the equivalent in Scots Gaelic and in Manx it is either 'Boaltinn' or 'Boaldyn'.
Beltaine is, of course, a purely Gaelic festival but other nationalities celebrated the first day of summer with very similar festivities. In Wales the day is known as Calan Mai or Calan Haf. The festivities began the night before as this was considered one of the "spirit nights" just as it was in Gaelic lands. As in Ireland bonfires were lit on the proceeding night. Round cakes of oatmeal and brown meal were baked, split in four and placed in a bag. People would draw, and everyone who drew a brown meal cake had to leap through the flames three times or run 3 times between the two fires that resembled the Irish ceremony. Welsh villagers would also go gathering hawthorn and flowers on May Eve which they would use to decorate their houses on May Day. Traditional Welsh customs also frequently involved mock battles between a man who represented winter and one who represented summer. Summer always won. The maypole was a traditional symbol in at least south Wales. in the north groups of young men would go "May dancing" , all of them dressed in white decorated with ribbons except for two who were called the Fool and the Cadi (an effeminate figure dressed in a man's coat and a woman's petticoat). The Cadi was a symbol of the change of the seasons as he "looked both ways", towards the winter and the summer. The dancing troupe would go to door singing and dancing and asking for a gift of money just as in Halloween in our day. May Day in Wales was also the time that the twmpath chwarae, a sort of "village green" was officially opened where villagers would gather on evenings to dance and play sports. Singers rather than dancers would also frequently go door to door on May Day morning to sing and ask for gifts in the custom known as "carolau haf" or "canu dan y pared", "summer carols" or "singing under the walls".
May Day in Cornwall also featured people decorating their houses with tree branches. A unique custom here, however, was the construction of 'May horns' from tin cans and 'May whistles' from small sycamore branches. These and other instruments would be used at the stroke of midnight to announce the beginning of summer, just like the noise-makers on New Year's Eve. People would also go around the village and countryside in Cornwall to gather drinks and other gifts.

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