How do folks spend Christmas in Wales? A lot like we do in the US, but with a few twists. Although some of these traditions have died out, a great many of them are still practiced in Wales.
In the days before Christmas, one of the oldest tradition in Wales, originating with the Druids, is decorating homes with fresh holly and mistletoe; holly as a symbol of eternal life and mistletoe to protect your home from evil. In Norse mythology, mistletoe was also a symbol of love & friendship, despite it being poisonous to humans. Holly was a fertility symbol and was believed to ward off witches and bad luck.
Pagans used evergreens to celebrate the winter solstice as it reminded them of the spring to come. And they would decorate the Christmas tree with paper garlands and baubles or what we call Christmas balls.
Noson Gyflaith (Toffee Evening) – a Christmas Eve Tradition
This is a Christmas Eve tradition of how families whiled away the dark hours of Christmas Eve, leading up to the Plygain service. Toffee was boiled in pans on open fires and dollops were dropped into icy cold water. The toffy curled into all sorts of shapes, like letters. This was a way of divining the initials of the younger, unmarried family members’ future loves.
Families would invite friends to their homes for supper followed by games, making toffee (or taffi, dant or ‘fanny’), and storytelling. Recipe for toffee.
Is literally translated as ‘Chimneypot John’, or the ‘bloke that comes down the chimney’ and is the Welsh Father Christmas or Santa Claus. This one probably only goes as far back as the existence of chimney pots. I have not been able to find out if the story derives from the same Santa Claus / Father Christmas origin, or whether there is a separate old Welsh folklore creeping in here too?
Y Nadolig (Christmas)
In the dark hours of the morning on Christmas Day, men gathered in rural churches to sing. They sang mainly unaccompanied, three or four-part harmony carols in a service that went on for 3 hours or so. It was called Plygain (daybreak). It’s a tradition that still lives in parts of Wales mostly because of its simplicity and beauty. It was a matter of pride that no carol be repeated, and often, families would write their own songs, handing the lyrics down through the generations.
After the service, a day of feasting and drinking would begin. For the better off families, goose would be the main course, while those less well off would eat Welsh rarebit, toasted bread and cheese, all washed down with ale.
Traditional Welsh Christmas Dinner
Roast Goose or Turkey
Pigs in Blankets – little sausages wrapped in bacon
Christmas Pudding with Brandy and cream or custard
The dinner table is decorated with a Christmas cracker for each person and sometimes candles and flowers.
Traditionally the Christmas put was made 5 weeks before Christmas, and in Wales, it was customary for all members of the family including children and servants to stir the pudding mixture, often mixed first by the head of the household. In the pudding mixture tokens would be placed such as a wedding ring, a button, a thimble, or a sixpence. If the stirrer found the wedding ring it would foretell the finder’s imminent marriage; finding the button by a young man foretold his bachelorhood and the thimble for a young woman meant she would be a spinster. Finding the sixpence was a symbol of good luck.
Mari Llwyd – The Grey Mare That Brings Good Luck
Sometime during the Christmas season the Mari Lwyd would be taken through the village to bring good luck to all the inhabitants.
The Mari Llwyd is a horse’s skull with false ears and eyes attached, along with reins and bells, covered with a white sheet and colorfully decorated with ribbons. It is carried from door-to-door and is accompanied by a party of people. At each door, poems are recited in Welsh. Those inside the house reply also in verse refusing to let the Mari Llwyd in until this battle of verse and insults (or pwngco) is won.
Young men from small villages would travel from house to house with ‘Mari” and attempt to gain access by performing a series of verses, while the owner of the establishment would try to outwit “Mari” with their own verses. Eventually the gang would be allowed in, as it was considered good luck, and the group would drink and eat and sing, before heading to another home.
Wel dyma ni’n dwad (Well here we come)
Gy-feillion di-niwad (Innocent friends)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad i ganu (To ask leave to sing)
— A common opening to the pwngco
Gwyl San Steffan (St. Steven’s Day; Boxing Day) – 26 December
The day after Christmas was Saint Stephen’s Day and also Boxing Day and was celebrated in a unique way to Wales and included the tradition of “holly-beating” or “holming”. Young men and boys would beat the unprotected arms of young females with holly branches until they bled. In some areas it was the legs that were beaten. In others, it was the custom for the last person out of bed in the morning to be beaten with sprigs of holly. These customs died out before the end of the 19th century.
Nos Galen (New Year’s Eve)
Many countries have a custom for letting in the New Year that involves the letting out of the Old Year and the welcoming in of the New Year, often with gifts for good luck for the coming year. The Scots have the custom of First Footing where at 12 midnight, armed with a bottle of whisky and/or gifts, people visit their neighbors going from house to house, toasting in the New Year, often not returning home until daybreak.
In England in many places it still is the custom that a dark haired man should let in the New Year for good luck. The man leaves the house by the back door just before midnight on New Years Eve, walks around and on the strike of midnight, knocks on the front door. The householder opens the door, and receives from the man the following gifts: salt for seasoning, silver for wealth, coal for warmth, a match for kindling and bread for sustenance.
In Wales the custom of letting in the New Year was slightly different in that if the first visitor in the New Year was a woman and the male householder opened the door, that was considered bad luck. If the first man to cross the threshold in the New Year was a red haired man, that was also bad luck.
Some other Welsh customs associated with the New Year were: “all existing debts were to be paid”; never lend anything to anyone on New Years Day else you would have bad luck; and the behavior of an individual on this day was an indication of how they would behave all year!
Drinking from the Wassail Bowl was a lucky New Year’s tradition in Wales at the turn of the century. This was a tradition that went hand in hand with Mari Llwyd and other Christmas get-togethers. The wassail bowl was often elaborate, ornate and many handled. The bowl was filled with fruit, sugar, spices and topped up with warm beer. As it was passed around, the drinkers would make a wish for a successful year’s farming and a bumper crop at harvest time.
The word ‘wassail’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon “Waes-Hael!” It means ‘be or grow healthy’ and started as a toast at yule in pagan times, becoming the name of the drink that was toasted.
The Gower wassailing bowls were usually made from elderberry boughs and the contents consisted of a mixture of wine, sherry, cider & beer, all topped off with a layer of bread or apples that were coated with beaten eggs. In days of short rations the toppings wee just as popular as the alcoholic content of the wassailing bowl.
Traditionally, the drink inside was more like a huge, boozy trifle. In 1823, Huw Huws described the Welsh wassail as “cakes and apples baked and set in rows on top of one another, with sugar in between, then warm beer, mixed with spices from India”. After the liquid was drunk, the cakes and apples were shared around.
Calennig – Trick or Treat, Welsh Style
On January 1st, from dawn until noon, groups of young boys would visit all the houses in the village carrying three-legged totems, evergreen twigs and a cup of cold water drawn from the local well. They would chant rhymes and in return, they would receive the Calennig – usually in the form of copper coins. If you didn’t give them the coins, they would splash you with the cold water. The custom survived in some areas of Wales until well after WW2, at least in the form of chanting a small verse or two in exchange for small coins.
Make Your Own Calennig
Take 3 short twigs -the length of lollipop sticks – and stick them into the bottom of an apple, as if they were stool legs. Now pepper the apple all around, hedgehog style, with cloves, almonds, and sprigs of evergreen. Stick a sprig of holly and a candle in the top of the calennig and…there you have it.
Hunting The Wren or Wren Day
On Twelfth Night in Wales, groups of men would go out Hunting the Wren. Once captured, the tiny bird would be killed, caged in a wooden box and carried from door-to-door. Householders would pay for the privilege of peeping at the poor wren in a box, then let the procession in for food and drinks. Should the procession be refused entry, a special song was sung:
“Come raging wind, in fury frown and turn this house upside down”.
The wren became a symbol over time as a betrayer and a master of trickery, therefore capturing and killing it was a way to start the new year with a clean slate.
Christmas would not end until Twelfth Night or either January 5 or 6, when the Wren Hunt would take place.
And that’s the end of a jam packed Christmas and New Year’s in Wales.