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May Day Activity - How to Make a Gwr Gwellt (Straw Man)

Updated on April 29, 2015
Pollyanna Jones profile image

Pollyanna writes about folklore, magic, history and legends, focussing on British, Irish, Germanic, and Celtic cultures.

On the eve of May Day, known in Welsh as Nos Galan Mai, it was common for May blossom to be brought into the home in readiness for the May Day festival.The blossom of the hawthorn tree heralded the coming of the May Queen and the victory of summer over winter, which were celebrated on May Day itself. Known as Calan Mai or Calan Haf, this is considered one of the old Celtic festivals of Britain, akin to Beltane.

Straw men known as Gwr Gwellt, also feature in this festival. A simple type of corn dolly, they were made by the men of North Wales; particularly Anglesey and Caernarfonshire for playing the straw man (gware gwr gwyllt) or hanging the straw man (crogi gwr gwellt). Fun and games it might seem, but the straw man was serious business!

If a man had lost out to another suitor, he would make a man of straw and place it near where his sweetheart lived. This poppet would represent the love rival, and a note would be pinned to it for either the rival or woman of his desires to find. Needless to say, it often caused a scuffle come May Day when the two men confronted each other over the corn dolly!

In this article, I will show you how you can make one of your very own. They make a charming decoration for any May festivities.

A Straw Man (gwr gwyllt) hanging in a May tree.
A Straw Man (gwr gwyllt) hanging in a May tree. | Source
Items needed to make your Straw Man (gwr gwellt).
Items needed to make your Straw Man (gwr gwellt). | Source

You Will Need:

1. 11 pieces of damp straw.

2. Sharp scissors.

3. A reel of neutral coloured cotton.

4. A pin (optional).

5. A small piece of paper (optional).

Preparation

The straw will need to soak in water for at least 2 hours before you begin, or else it will break when folding. I roll mine in a tea-towel and place it in a bucket or bath-tub before starting this activity. When you begin this craft, remove the straw from the water and leave on a towel to prevent other surfaces from getting wet.

Fig. 1. You will need 8 pieces of straw of equal length to make the body of your Straw Man (gwr gwellt).
Fig. 1. You will need 8 pieces of straw of equal length to make the body of your Straw Man (gwr gwellt). | Source
Fig. 2. Fold the straw over and tie with string to make the head and trunk of your Straw Man (gwr gwyllt).
Fig. 2. Fold the straw over and tie with string to make the head and trunk of your Straw Man (gwr gwyllt). | Source

Stage 1, Head & Body

Taking 8 pieces of straw, hold them together and cut them until they are of equal length (fig.1).

You may find it a help to use a small elastic band to hold them all together as the next part is fiddly. These bands can be a good aid during this project if you find the corn dolly falls apart, until you have had a chance to tie it all securely with string.

About two fifths up the stalks, make a fold (fig. 2). It is easier to fold these if folding across a straight edge, such as a ruler. The top of this fold will be the top of your poppet's head.

A short way down from the top of the head, take some of your cotton and wrap around the "neck", pulling tightly before tying. This will cause the head to bulge out and give it shape.

The rest of the folded straw will make the bulk of the torso, being twice as thick as the rest of the poppet. The legs are not doubled up as the torso is.

The poppet's legs should measure about half of the remaining length of the corn dolly.

If it doesn't quite measure up, don't worry as you can trim to size when you are finishing.

Fig. 3. Take 3 pieces of straw of equal length for the arms of your Straw Man. Plait or simply tie on each end.
Fig. 3. Take 3 pieces of straw of equal length for the arms of your Straw Man. Plait or simply tie on each end. | Source
Fig. 4. Feed the arm piece of your Straw Man through the body, then tie the bottom of the body tightly with string to make secure.
Fig. 4. Feed the arm piece of your Straw Man through the body, then tie the bottom of the body tightly with string to make secure. | Source

Stage 2, Arms

Taking 3 new pieces of straw, cut them to equal length.

If you are a beginner, you can simply tie them tightly around each "wrist" and leave the arms plain. You will see how tying them tightly will make them splay out as if they are fingers.

It is easy to plait the arms though if you like (fig. 3). Secure one end with string, then work your way down. Make sure each wrist is tied up tightly.

Then take the arm piece and slide it through the torso. You want roughly half the straws to be behind the arms, and half in front.

Once you are happy with the position of the arms, take another piece of string and tie tightly around the "waist" of the corn dolly (fig. 4).

This will hold the arms in place, and will give the straw man some shape.

You will see some strands of the torso hanging down over the legs, but I think it looks nice to leave some in place as it suggests a rough tunic for the straw man.

Fig. 5. To separate the legs of your Straw Man (gwr gwyllt), separate the straws & tie above each foot tightly.
Fig. 5. To separate the legs of your Straw Man (gwr gwyllt), separate the straws & tie above each foot tightly. | Source

Stage 3, Legs

The easiest part!

Separate the straws equally (you will have four straws per leg if using this pattern).

Now hold each "leg" tightly, and make him do the splits! This will give them an angle and separation.

When you are happy, tie some cotton tightly around the "ankles" to secure.

The basic gwr gwellt is now finished. Tidy up with a pair of scissors to make the proportions pleasing to you.

Fig. 6. Hide a note in your Straw Man, securing with a pin.
Fig. 6. Hide a note in your Straw Man, securing with a pin. | Source

For added authenticity, you might want to leave a little note in your straw man.

Some attractive cartridge paper or parchment looks nice against the golden straw, secured with a decorative pin.

Rather than leave a message for an unrequited love or rival suitor, perhaps leave a note wishing good luck and happiness to come to those you love come May Day? A few romantic words would be even better.

We don't want fighting on the village green now, do we?

Source

Over to you!

What will you do with your straw man?

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© 2015 Pollyanna Jones

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    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      It's a nice easy one, and looks very good at the end. I am sure the kids will enjoy it too.

    • Frida Rose profile image

      Frida Rose 2 years ago from Maryland

      This is such a great way to involve kids with crafts. I'll have to try it out.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
      Author

      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      You are welcome!

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 2 years ago

      I really loved this, what a great craft-- perfect for Beltane. Thanks so much!

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
      Author

      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you, I am so glad you enjoyed it.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Great hub and very well presented!

      I love this craft and it would be a great idea to engage kids in this activity.

      Thanks for sharing the helpful pictures and instructions.

      Voted up!

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
      Author

      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you both! I love finding all the crafts traditionally associated with festivals, there are so many. I hope you enjoy making these, and good luck!

    • Susan Hambidge profile image

      Susan Hambidge 2 years ago from Hertfordshire, England

      The pictures on here really help to understand what to do.Thanks Pollyana, I love this!

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 2 years ago

      A really great hub Pollyanna, love it, fantastic to learn about Welsh culture considering your great country is just across the water, I'll give this a go with the kids they will love it, thanks for sharing, voted up, Lee