Welsh Christmas traditions through history
What would you experience if you visited Christmases past in Wales? Lauren Good explores the country’s festive traditions…
Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales (a piece of prose first recorded in 1952) paints a rich picture of the country’s festive traditions. In Thomas’s famous work, based on his own childhood memories and presenting a largely romanticised view of Welsh festivities in the 1920s, mistletoe is “hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlours”, below which people enjoy “sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons”.
Whilst these practices might seem rather familiar, with echoes of the Christmas traditions that endure in Welsh homes today, there are plenty more traditions in Wales’s history that are not quite so predictable.
So, what would you experience if you travelled back at various moments to a real Christmas in Wales? Perhaps a prick of the ears as carols sound at 3am from the local chapel, or widened eyes at a group hunting down a wren to parade around the village on Twelfth Night. And, when you’ve retreated behind closed doors, a horse skull draped in sheets might come a-knocking…
Christmas Eve – Noswyl Nadolig
Toffee Evening – Noson Gyflaith
In a tradition that’s believed to date from the late 18th century, as Christmas Eve rolled into the night, many Welsh families would gather to make toffee. Ingredients were boiled in pans on the fire, and then pulled repeatedly into long strands whilst still warm.
Once the toffee had reached a golden yellow colour, the strands were cut into small pieces and dropped into iced water to cool. Upon this, the sweet treats curled into shapes – any that resembled letters were thought to foresee the future loves of unbetrothed family members.
Along with making toffee, Christmas Eve was also celebrated with storytelling, playing games, and decorating the house with holly and mistletoe.
Though this custom was mainly found in North Wales, toffee-making was also practised in the south of the country, particularly in coal-mining communities. However, in these regions it was not associated with Christmas; housewives would sell it either from their homes or on market stalls.
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Additionally, the word ‘toffee’ would not have been used until the 19th century, and the sweet treat would have instead been named ‘cyflaith’, ‘ffanni’ and, more commonly, ‘taffy’.
You can make your own with this recipe.
Christmas Day – Dydd Nadolig
Daybreak – Plygain
For many families, late-night toffee making on Christmas Eve would follow directly into another significant Welsh Christmas tradition. Plygain was a service that began early on Christmas Day in the 17th century – 3 o’clock in the morning, to be precise.
Plygain – which has a translated meaning that’s close to ‘cockcrow’, indicating the early hour – included a torch-led procession that made its way to the service, with cow-horns sounding loudly to announce the event. Once the party had reached the church, unaccompanied song would begin, with harmonies filling the church walls.
Evidence of services across Wales during this period can be found in the history books, with one in Dolgellau in northwest Wales described by William Payne, an English painter born in the mid 18th century.
“Now the church is in a blaze, now crammed, body, aisles, gallery,” Payne wrote, describing how local people would “descend” from the galleries to sing “without artificial aid of pitch pipe, the long, long carol and old favourite describing the Worship of Kings and of the Wise Men.”
Songs would often continue until 6am, when the service gave way to the merriment of Christmas Day.
“Prayers over,” adds Payne of the Dolgellau service, “the singers begin again more carols, new singers, old carols in solos, duets, trios, choruses, then silence in the audience, broken at appropriate pauses by the suppressed hum, of delight and approval, till between eight and nine, hunger telling on the singers, the Plygain is over and the Bells strike out a round peal.”
Holidays – Y Gwyliau
Though Christmas had previously been overshadowed in Wales by more significant new year’s celebrations of Nos Galan, in the mid-18th century, many farm workers began to observe a three-week holiday. Christmas Day marked the beginning of this period – Y Gwyliau – during which farm work was suspended. To symbolise this restful period, a plough was often brought indoors and lain beneath the table on which meals were eaten.
The initial meal for this festive period would have been made by the largest farm in each neighbourhood to which everyone else was invited. Meat would have been served, traditionally goose or beef, beer was also drunk, and those present at the feast wetted the plough at their feet, to show they had not forgotten their faithful machine.
Boxing Day – Gwyl San Steffan
Holming – Curo celyn
Perhaps the most violent custom of all the Welsh Christmas traditions is ‘holming’ or ‘holly-beating’. Though its origins are unknown, it was a brutal tradition that lasted in some parts of Wales into the 19th century.
Taking place on the morning of Boxing Day (Gŵyl San Steffan) throughout Wales, girls were beaten with holly branches on their arms or legs until they drew blood. In other locations, it was the last person to rise from bed who was beaten with these holly sprigs. Domestic animals would also be bled, and these practices were thought to bring good luck for the coming year.
New Year’s Eve – Nos Galan
Letting in the New Year – Gosod yn y Flwyddyn Newydd
It was widely believed (and still is in some Welsh households!), that if the first visitor of the new year is a woman and a male resident opens the door to her, bad luck will follow.
This differs from other parts of Britain. In Scotland, it is good luck for the first visitor to bring gifts to the household. Whilst, in England, many people still believe that a dark-haired man should let in the new year for good luck.
New Year’s Day – Dydd Blwyddyn Newydd
Grey Mare – Mari Lwyd
This pre-Christian tradition is possibly one of the most famous traditions associated with the Welsh festive period. The Mari Lwyd is a horse’s skull draped in a white sheet and decorated with colourful ribbons and bells. A group of people would lead the horse from house to house, adorned in elaborate costume, and plead admittance inside using a rhyming ritual called pwnco.
This custom was first recorded in writer and schoolmaster J Evans’s A Tour through Part of North Wales in 1800, though is most associated with areas of South Wales – particularly Glamorgan and Gwent.
The verses of pwnco were sung in an alternate fashion between the procession and the inhabitants of the house. This exchange – begging from the procession and the making of excuses from inhabitants – continued until one party could not think of anything else to sing. One record of this song, which could be in Welsh or English, is:
‘Open your doors,
Let us come and play,
It’s cold here in the snow,
‘Go away you old monkeys,
Your breath stinks,
And stop blathering.
‘Our mare is very pretty,
Let her come and play,
Her hair is full of ribbons
‘Instead of freezing,
We’ll lead the Mari,
Inside to amuse us.
Tonight is Christmastide.’
If the inhabitants ran out of excuses, they had to allow the procession entry into their home. Inside, merriment would begin, sustained by food and ale. After causing mayhem in one house, the party would continue to another.
Of course, there was something to gain for the homeowner – the Mari Lwyd was thought to bring good luck to the houses it entered. The celts believed horses were a symbol of fertility, and the Mari is thought to have represented the death of the previous year, and the renewal of the new one to come.
Though this ancient custom has largely died out, it can still be observed in some communities in the 21st century, such as Llangynwyd near Maesteg.
Wassail bowl – Powlen wassail
Before mulled wine and cider, there was the wassail bowl.
The ritual of drinking from this is thought to be a combination of Anglo-Saxon and Tudor customs. An ornate bowl would be filled with warm beer, fruit, sugar, and spices. It would then be passed around and people would drink from it in turn.
- Read more | Tales from a Tudor Christmas
By the 17th century, the wassail bowl was instead taken from door to door, and inhabitants would drink over wishes of health and prosperity.
Small gift – Calennig
Calennig was a New Year’s custom enjoyed by children across Wales. They would sing or recite rhymes door to door in exchange for treats such as bread and cheese, sweets, and money.
In their hands, they would carry an apple or orange on three sticks, decorated with nuts, herbs, and evergreen sprigs. As these were seen as a symbol of good luck, or as a token of good crops in the next year, they were also displayed in windows or given as gifts throughout this period.
Some would also take a cup of water from the local well, and splash people with water.
This custom survived in some parts of Wales until well after the Second World War.
- Read more | What was Christmas like in Britain during WW2?
Twelfth Night – Deuddegfed Nos
Hunting the wren – Hela’r dryw
This tradition not only has roots in Wales, but across Europe.
In a tradition found during the 19th century, groups of men from Welsh villages would hunt down a wren, and then entrap it in a wooden box. Later, they would sing whilst processing around the village. The bird would be carried from door to door, where households would pay to see the encaged creature. In some villages, the party would make only one stop at the biggest house, asking for food and money.
This custom might seem cruel and strange to us in the modern day, but the use of a bird as a symbol of luck has long since held a place in Welsh history. In the Mabinogion (the earliest Welsh prose stories, widely considered to have been compiled in Middle Welsh in the 11th–14th centuries), the figure Lleu Llaw Gyffes is named after having killed a wren.
- Read more | A brief history of Wales: the resilient nation
Sometimes a substitution was acceptable, as described by 19th-century Welsh clergyman and scholar Rev. Silvan Evans. “If they could not catch a wren for the occasion, it was lawful to substitute a sparrow (ad eryn tô). The husband, if agreeable, would then open the door, admit the party, and regale them with plenty of Christmas ale, the obtaining of which being the principal object of the whole performance.”
‘Hunting the wren’ also allowed for some redistribution of wealth around communities during Christmastime.
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