May Carols: songs to welcome the summer
According to the Celtic way of counting, the first day of the year was the first of November. The first of May, therefore, was the first day of the summer season.
What better reason was needed to celebrate?
The main attraction of Mayday was the setting up of the Maypole, decorated with flowers and ribbons, which remained in position for the summer. Another attraction was the dancing, and the Welsh could weave and turn as well as anyone. Numerous May carols have also survived. The earliest of these are in manuscripts, but from the eighteenth century onwards they appear in almanacs and in ballad leaflets. The carols were composed on light metres, similar to the dance metres, and the rhythms show clearly that the singers sang with great enthusiasm and gusto.
Why all the celebrations and merriment? At the time people believed that the energy they created by dancing and singing would affect the earth’s energies to grow crops and the animals to breed, to give birth and develop.
Occasionally dance and song would be combined, for example in the songs and rhymes of the Cadi Ha:
Lada Ca a Morus dda, mi neidia dros dy ben di,
Lodo goch a rhuban coch, am y gore neidio.
Lady Herbert Lewis describes seeing paupers in Mold jumping as high as they could while singing the Cadi Ha. Their aim was to awaken the earth, and also to frighten away evil spirits who could damage the growing process.
The reference to the cow and calf (buwch a llo) in some of the Cadi Ha songs suggests that the celebrations included blessing the animals:
Cynffon buwch a chynffon llo,
A chynffon Richard Parry;
Hac, ha wen!
Other verses glorify nature’s fullness and abundance so that no one feels any shortages – it’s not even noticeable – when the animals who have survived the hungers of the harsh winter now start feeding in earnest:
Fe wna’r anifeiliaid foliau
Fu’n clemio i aros C’lamai,
Pob un a lanw ei lwynau
Heb fod mo’r llysiau’n llai.
And just as the animals get their share of the spring blessings, humans also benefit. May is the season for lovers to wake up after the cold of the winter. The May carols encourage young people, in the warmth of the sunshine, to feel the same warmth towards each other and to pursue love. But the carols also have a warning. Innocent girls are advised to be wary of ‘young men with large appetites’ (meibion mawr eu cariad) who may cause ‘a dreadful fall’ (codwm anllad). The passions of love are particularly strong in May, which could well lead to setting the date for a wedding. The ‘initial excitement of summer’ can be far-reaching!
The Mayday carollers were early risers. Moving around from one house to the other was an early morning activity, and the carollers particularly enjoyed singing outside those homes where the families and workers were still asleep. After calling for an audience, their great pleasure was to announce the arrival of the summer season, with all its implications. It was an opportunity to congratulate the people of the locality for seeing another summer, and they would take advantage of this to encourage celebration. Having described the harshness of winter and its hardships, the main emphasis of the May carols is a great joy that the discomfort is now over and that the season of plenty has arrived. The weather is warmer, the birds sing their praises to the month of May, and flowers cover the whole world.
Before leaving, the songsters would bless the house and its inhabitants and wish them luck; this would also apply to their possessions and animals, crops and fruits of the garden and fields. In return for spreading good fortune over the land they would expect some ‘calennig’. They would then take their leave for another year.
This article first appeared in Ontrac magazine.
Below you can listen to four very different versions of the most popular May Carol, Mae’r Ddaear yn Glasu.