December 14, 2019 5 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
  • Holly Beating
  • 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!

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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 and also with Welsh Societies in London.

 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)
Mari Lwyd at Tafarn Sinc pub, Rhos y Bwlch (Rosebush) Pembrokeshire

See Mari Lwyd in Pembrokeshire on 13th December 2019 at;

  • Globe Inn, Maenclochog 6pm
  • Tufton Arms, Tufton 7pm
  • Tafarn Sinc, Rosebush 8pm

Also Welsh Societies such as Chicago Taffia in the USA hold Mari Lwyd celebrations

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.

Wren Day

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. 

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
Mari Lwyd Grey Mare Horse
Calennig Celebrating the New Year with presents - Trick or Treat, Welsh style
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda Happy New Year
Iechyd Da Good health or Cheers (with drink in hand!)
  

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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Last Updated - 13th December 2019



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