Festive Traditions in Wales
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
As November draws to a close I would usually be thinking of compiling a list of Christmas or Winter themed events into a handy blog post ready for guests to the area- but not this year, hello 2020 Merry Christmask.
Instead I’m going to lean hard into the theme of weird Wales that I started with Halloween and look at Welsh festive traditions, because who doesn’t want to learn about what we get up to with a horse’s skull to get into the festive spirit?
I think it’s fair to say that in some respects Wales is synonymous with "Song". We are often quoted as being “The Land of Song” and any opportunity to get together and sing loudly and in unison is met with fervent joy across the country (yes, Wales is like living in a Disney film, and yes we do break out into spontaneous song)
So it’s only right that any festive traditions would include a lot of singing:
Plygain was/is the tradition of packing everyone into a church between the hours of 3am-6am Christmas morning - my 2020 vision is shuddering at the thought - to sing for two hours, or until they ran out of steam.
So the first version of the word Plygain was recorded in 13th Century Welsh manuscripts in reference to the singing of carols- old or what? The tradition rose to greater popularity in the 17th century and petered off a little from the 19th century onwards though it is still held in various churches across Wales today.
The carols are different to the traditional English Christmas carols in that they are more like prayers and have been collected into a "Llyfr Plygain" (Book of Prayer) and would in some instances be adapted to include local farms and place names which would then become popular enough to replace the original prayer.
The service itself would include a short sermon (don't want to get in the way of 2 hours of song with a musty ol' speech) and then different groups, duets and soloists would step forward at their leisure to sing out a carol, making it a point of pride to not repeat a song previously heard that evening.
Traditionally it would just be the menfolk doing the singing, but with more modern adaptations of the event, women were included.
Here's a lovely bit of Plygain singing that you can listen to at 3am, for authenticity.
The Plygain service didn’t start and stop at the church; in most households people would stay up the night before in anticipation of the 3am church visit. They would spend time making cyflaith, a treacle taffy, and decorating the house with holly and mistletoe. Then everyone would walk to the church holding Plygain Candles (which, I mean, just candles, basically) as a big illuminated procession.
The many candles would then be used to decorate the church, and to be honest the whole thing sounds like a health and safety nightmare… which is kind of on brand for the rest of the festive traditions too.
So this tradition is straight up, pure, unfiltered feral nonsense because it is literally whipping women with holly until they bleed.
Until they b-l-e-e-d
The morning after Christmas (Gwyl Sant Steffan) the young lads of the village would go around and beat the unprotected arms (or in some regions, legs just to keep it fresh) of the young women with holly branches. Some places it would just be the female servants that got whipped (WHAT) and some places included the people who were last out of bed, so not just the womenfolk being horribly abused, good to know.
Couple of things with this is that:
1. I can’t find any evidence of this tradition being done anywhere else across the globe. Most traditions are usually repeated in different versions in different places because ultimately we’re all kind of the same, but not this one. Which speaks volumes as to how ridiculous an idea it is. (UNTIL THEY BLEED!)
2. I’m hoping it’s just an elaborate prank and was never a real thing to begin with.
Oh look, more bloodshed for Boxing Day. Hunting the Wren.
This time it’s not just Wales that has the weird tradition, this can also be found in various countries across Europe (although it’s particularly prominent in Welsh and Irish history) and Boxing Day is referred to as “Wren Day” in some instances.
There are few different origin stories for this and the wren as a symbolic bird crops up in a few different tales even sometimes referred to as the King of the Birds. Our beloved Mabinogion even has an example of an important wren: Lleu Llaw Gyffes strikes a wren dead and it is how he earns his name.
So on Boxing Day a group of men (much in demand apparently, what with all the holly beating as well) would head out on a wren hunt.
To be fair they wouldn’t always kill the bird but instead would put it in a small cage so that, dead or alive, it could be brought back to the village and marched from door to door, where the group would ask for gifts of food or money in exchange for seeing the captured wren
Some versions have each house pay to see the wren and then provide food and drinks to the young men, for luck, others would have the procession only stop at the ‘big house’ for food and money.
All versions included lots of songs about the wren and the whole hunt.
Despite seeming a little off the wall I think the tradition is probably drawing on the concept of welcoming in good fortune and a clean slate for the new year, encouraging community ties in what would probably be fairly isolated areas, while also redistributing some wealth around the community.
Not as bad as we thought. Perhaps unless you’re the wren.
A much more light hearted Christmas Tradition that has developed recently is the Winter Swim. Exactly what it says on the tin, people gathering together and taking a brisk morning dip in the sea! Lovely.
For the last 50 years Porthcawl has hosted a Christmas Morning Swim, with Boxing Day swims hosted in Tenby and Pembrey and New Year swims in Abersoch, Barry Island, Whitesands, Morfa Nefyn and Saundersfoot
What I enjoy about this is all of these swims (bar Abersoch, what happened there eh?) happen on the south coast, which says a lot about the folks down that neck of the woods (you’re all barmy!)
There are a few different traditions around New Year, some of which are quite cute and some (one) of which are exactly the brand of feral Welsh nonsense that we have come to know and love (you, Mari Lwyd, I am looking exactly at you)
The cute ones are odd little snippets of superstition like: If the first man to cross the threshold in the New Year was a red haired man = bad luck.
if the first visitor in the New Year was a woman and the male householder opened the door = bad luck
If you lend anything to anyone on New Years Day = bad luck
Okay, so mainly they're bad luck orientated, but my very favourite cute thing for New Year is Calennig
Literal translation is “first day of the month” though it is more synonymous with gift giving, specifically on New Year.
Traditionally groups of children (usually boys- isn't that a shocker) would set about the village from dawn until dusk on the first of January with evergreen twigs and cups of water, using the twigs to splash people with the water and being gifted copper coins (the Calennig) in return.
In other places it would involve visiting house to house and singing for the calennig, which I personally would find preferable to a face splash from old cup water with a stick.
In a more modern setting people would visit friends and family on New Years day where the children would then receive calennig. As kids we used to get a £1 coin from our grandparents and family friends on New Year's Day, or the days following if that’s when they first saw us, as a gift of calennig and honestly I felt like a proper grown up the day I started doling out the pound coins myself!
Y Fari Lwyd
So here’s the thing. England can be a bit weird, right? Skipping around a pole with long ribbons? Full grown men dancing with bells on their knees? A little bit quaint, a little bit quirky, a little bit odd. Sure.
This is Wales.
We take your Maypole and Morris Dancers and we raise you a pole with an actual horse’s skull on the end, decorated with ribbons and bells for whimsy, marching about the village to rap battle with the locals.
Yeah, you read that right; rap. battle.
The concept of ‘the hooded animal’ apparently isn’t too far fetched and can be found in a few other regions. In Wales though the Mari Lwyd is used as a good omen for the New Year.
In some places decorating the horse would be a bit of a community event, some places would add glass eyes, because why not. There is mention that in the Gower the skull would be buried for the rest of the year and then dug up just for the event (South Wales again, you guys ok hun?)
Once the Mari Lwyd was a ready a group of about seven blokes would take charge; one hiding under the long sheet and controlling the pole (and sometimes string attached to the skull’s jaw to move it about, yep, there’s the creepy part we were waiting for); one nominated “leader” of the horse; with the remaining group decorated with ribbons, for more whimsy.
These two dapper chaps are from Llangynwyd, Glamorgan.
The left image was taken between 1904 and 1910, and the one of the right between c.1910 and 1914
They would then begin the parade around the village.
The parade is where the rap battle comes in, more commonly known as Pwnco.
The group would approach a house and request to enter by singing a song, the people in the house would start offering up excuses why they couldn’t let them in (something probably like, “don’t want that huge animal skull in my kitchen, thanks”) and then there’d be a back and forth between the group and the household before they eventually run out of excuses and let them in. Once inside they would be offered food and drink and whoever was nominated “leader” of the group would have to pretend to struggle to control the Mari Lwyd while it ran around scaring the children.
Honestly the whole thing seems like a lot of fun, right?
Though there is a fair bit of variety in these traditions and festivities for the most part they seem to be centered around a sense of community and family.
Which is a sentiment I can get behind.
Big question is which of these traditions would you be most keen to take part in?
(Holming is immediately stricken off the list of choices. I am still mad about it)