Throughout the world, Christmas and New Year celebrations are a favourite time of the year, not least in Wales. It is often asked, What is Christmas in Welsh and What is Happy New Year - the answer is "Nadolig Llawen" or Merry Christmas and "Blwyddyn Newydd Dda" or Happy New Year. The other important question is, "What is Father Christmas in Welsh" and the answer is "Sion Corn".
There are many Welsh traditions at Christmas and the New Year, including:
Plygain – Christmas Carols between 3am and 6am
Noson Gyflaith – Toffee making evening
Mari Lwyd – A Grey Mare brings good luck
Wassail – Drinking hot mulled cider
Hunting the Wren
Calennig – Trick or Treat, Welsh style
Cwm Gwaun (near Fishguard) New Year celebrations on 13th January each year!
Plygain in rural North and Mid Wales dates back to the Catholic period, when early morning Plygain services were held on Christmas day. It is one of the oldest Welsh Christmas traditions and the earliest recording of a Plygain service is from the 13th century. Services would stop at first light when everyone would then go home and celebrate Christmas. After the service, a day of feasting and drinking would begin.
This unique form of unaccompanied carol-singing, a Welsh Christmas song, characterised by close harmony and originally sung by small groups of men, is still very much a living tradition, and has indeed seen somewhat of a revival amongst the younger generation. New singers and parties have emerged, and new services have been established in various parts of the country, where the older carols can be heard alongside new original carols composed in the traditional mode.
The Plygain tradition still lives on in many areas of Wales and often plays a role in the Cadw Christmas events calendar at sites such as Tintern Abbey and St David's Bishop’s Palace and also with Welsh Societies in London.
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Noson Gyflaith (Toffee Evening)
In order to stay awake until it was time to go to church, one activity that was traditionally practiced was toffee making, a Noson Gyflaith meaning a Toffee Evening. A Noson Gyflaith was often part of the Plygain services and involved an evening of toffee making. Rural farms and other homes would invite friends and family round and the evening would consist of games, storytelling and of course, toffee making. Some places in Wales still have this tradition and in some historic venues around the country tourists are able to make their own toffee and join in on this sweet tradition.
Gwyl San Steffan (St. Stephens Day; Boxing Day)
Boxing Day (26th December), St Steffan's Day, was celebrated in a unique way in Wales and included the tradition of “holly-beating” or “holming.” Bizarrely, young men and boys would gather holly branches and the beat the arms of young females with those prickly branches until they bled. In some areas it was the legs that were beaten. In others, it was the custom for the last person to get out of bed in the morning to be beaten with holly branches. This strange and cruel custom died out before the end of the 19th century.
Mari Lwyd - Grey Horse (Mare)
Mari Lwyd means “grey mare” and is a pre-Christian tradition thought to bring good luck in the New Year. The horse figure is made and adorned with ornamental ears and eyes. It would also be further decorated with coloured ribbons, bells and paper. It would then be paraded around the town. The party would challenge different houses to a battle of wits (known as pwnco). After this battle, the Mari Lwyd party would be invited into the house for refreshments.
(Image courtesy of Milford Mercury Newspaper)
Wassail - hot mulled Cider
This is a tradition that was a fundamental part of all Christmas festivities. As mulled wine is drunk today, drinking from the wassail bowl would have been part of any Welsh Christmas.
Wassail is a hot mulled cider that is typically drunk around Christmas and was originally intended to toast and hope for a good harvest of cider apples the following year. Although the wassail bowl has been a tradition in Wales for many years, its origins derived from the Anglo-Saxon "Waes Hael!", meaning to be or to become healthy.
In 19th century Wales, groups of men would go out ‘Hunting the Wren’. Once captured, the tiny bird would be caged in a wooden box and carried door-to-door for all to see. Wren Day, Day of the Wren or Hunt the Wren Day was celebrated in Wales between the 6th and 12th January. While it is no longer celebrated, it is really interesting to discover the old Welsh customs and how “Hunting the Wren” was executed.
The Wren procession involved a group of men, carrying a small wren in a wooden cage door-to-door through the town. People in the houses would then pay to see the wren. These crowds were sometimes called wrenboys.
Why a wren? It could be that a wren was chosen because of its connection with royalty and prestige.
According to old Welsh traditions, the children go from door to door singing and are given ‘Calennig’ in return, sweets or money or both!. Calennig is a Welsh word which translates literally as "the first day of the month" but it also means a New Year celebration or a New Year gift. In Cwm Gwaun, Pembrokeshire, this celebration takes place on 13th January each year and not on the 1st. Find out why?
Welsh Christmas and New Year Words and Meanings
Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Nadolig Llawen i chi gyd
Merry Christmas to you all
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda
Happy New Year
With no obvious translation, Plygain is Welsh traditional Christmas event, traditionally an early morning Christmas service which takes place in a church between three and six o'clock on Christmas morning.
Cyfarchion y Tymor
Gwyl San Steffan
New Years Eve
New Year Day
Grey Mare Horse
Celebrating the New Year with presents - Trick or Treat, Welsh style