The strange and frightening world of Welsh Christmas traditions


Jamie Bowman

“HOLIDAYS are coming” screams the advert as the big red lorry ushers in the start of another soft drink-sponsored yuletide spectacular.

The arrival of Coca-Cola’s Christmas truck, which trundled into Wrexham last week, is just one of a number of ‘new’ traditions that for a whole generation have now come to define the fact that Christmas is on its way.

Whether it’s Black Friday, the ubiquitous Christmas jumpers or The Elf on the Shelf, these new crazes are gradually taking over from more traditional festive pastimes like carol singing or midnight mass.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. A trip back in time shows many Welsh Christmas traditions that have fallen by the wayside as tastes change and society evolves.

Take Noson Gyflaith for instance. Once a traditional part of Christmas or New Year festivities in many areas of North Wales earlier this century, families would invite friends to their homes for supper followed by games, making toffee and storytelling. The hours must have flown past.

In the days before Christmas it was always customary to decorate your house with huge swathes of mistletoe and holly.

Mistletoe was supposed to protect the family from evil while holly was there as a symbol of eternal life. When you consider that mistletoe had always been regarded as the sacred plant of the ancient druids it is not too difficult to see its importance as a symbol for people living in isolated parts of rural Wales.

Getting up early seems to be a recurrent theme and while today we’re often left nursing our hangovers on Christmas Day, the custom in many parts of Wales was to attend a very early church service known as ‘Plygain’ (daybreak) between 3am and 6am.

Men gathered in rural churches to sing, mainly unaccompanied, three or four part harmony carols in a service that went on for three hours or so. After the service, a day of feasting and drinking would begin. That sounds more like it.

It’s the day after Christmas Day when things really begin to get weird with the tradition of ‘holly-beating’ or ‘holming’ where young men and boys would beat the unprotected arms of young females with holly branches until they bled.

Just to mix things up a bit, in some areas it was the legs that were beaten while in others, it was the custom for the last person to get out of bed in the morning to be beaten with sprigs of holly. Thankfully, these customs died out before the end of the 19th century – good news for girls that like a lie in.

As we head towards New Year, there’s no let up in the strangeness. If the first visitor to a Welsh house on January 1 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. Keeping up?

If you think that’s odd, imagine hearing a knock on your door and being challenged to a battle of rhyming insults by a man holding a horse’s skull.

That’s the ‘Mari Lwyd’ – Grey Mare – a pre-Christian custom that was once widespread in South Wales and saw the singing of traditional stanzas by the horse figure in the hope of securing admission into the house to partake of cakes and ale and perhaps collect a cash gift as well. And you thought cold callers were bad.

Calennig is another Welsh custom that died out at the end of the 19th century. From dawn until dusk on January 1, small groups of boys would pass from house to house in the village or town, carrying twigs of evergreen plants and cups or jugs of water.

They would use the twigs to splash water at people and, in return, would receive the calennig – small copper coins.

Christmas, of course, did not end until Twelfth Night and in Wales the custom of hunting the wren was something that took place on this last night of festivities. Men would catch a wren, put it in a wooden box and carry it from door to door. Householders would then pay a penny for the privilege of lifting the lid of the box in an attempt to see the tiny bird.

Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that very few of these traditions that have survived.

Customs involving capturing live birds, carrying a horse’s skull and hitting girls with branches hardly seem appropriate these days but they remain an important and revealing window into our past.

Whether future generations will feel the same about Coca-Cola’s Christmas truck only time will tell.

See full story in the Leader

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