November 05, 2019 4 min read

Welsh Christmas Traditions

Introduction

Throughout the world, Christmas and New Year celebrations are a favourite time of the year, not least in Wales, 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
  • Calennig – Trick or Treat, Welsh style
  • Cwm Gwaun near Fishguard - New Year celebrations on 13th January each year!

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Plygain

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, 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.

 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.

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.

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.

Calennig

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

 Welsh Words Meaning
   
 Plygain 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.
Noson Gyflaith   Toffee Evening
Cerden Nadolig Christmas Card
Coeden Nadolig Christmas Tree
Cyfarchion y Tymor Seasonal Greetings
Sion Corn Father Christmas
Noswyl Nadolig Christmas Eve
Nadolig Christmas
Dydd Nadolig Christmas Day
Gwyl San Steffan Boxing Day
Nos Galan New Years Eve
Hen Galan New Year Day
Calennig Celebrating the New Year with presents - Trick or Treat, Welsh style
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda Happy New Year
  

About FelinFach

Our company, FelinFach Natural Textiles is located in the heart of the Preseli area of Pembrokeshire near to Boncath. We design Welsh blankets, Welsh woollen blankets and so, so cosy throws which are traditionally woven at Welsh mills. All our woollen products are made from pure new wool - they are not used, 'vintage' or second-hand. We also design and make natural hand dyed yarn, cotton, silk and wool scarves and other handmade products. We are a proud supporter of the Campaign for Wool, Global Welsh and Wales International.

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