Welsh Culture & Traditions|
There are many great traditions of Wales, but three stand out that make it culturally distinct from its neighbors: the Eisteddfod, the Noson Lawen and the Cymanfa Ganu. Of these, the Eisteddfod is probably the most ancient and certainly the most popular. Most towns and villages conduct an annual Eisteddfod in one way or another. It is simply a competition, but the word translates as a "Chairing," with the winner being awarded a chair upon which he is ceremoniously crowned to great acclaim. Winners of local eisteddfodau (pl) go on to compete on a county or regional level, eventually reaching the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales (Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru ) in which they compete with others from all parts of the country. The "National" is the largest folk festival in Europe: held in a different town the first week in August each year. Alternating between a venue in South Wales one year and North Wales the next, it draws vast crowds to enjoy its week-long activities.
Eisteddfod: A Cultural Competition
The idea of the Eisteddfod is very ancient. It began, as did many Welsh institutions, as a challenge from outside. This was the Norman invasion of Britain and the consequent subjugation of much of the population of Wales to Norman rule. In Wales proper, the coming of the Normans had the paradoxical effect of bringing about a brilliant new literary culture that was both Welsh and European in its outlook. There was an explosion of literary activity mainly made possible through the proliferation, throughout Wales, of monasteries and friaries, with their reverence for historical and literary traditions and their expertise in strengthening and preserving those traditions. Of great significance for Welsh culture was the revival of the bardic orders, indeed, the expansion of those orders led to the first eisteddfod, for the bards were anxious to come together in the spirit of competition. It is this era, too, that saw the blossoming of the Arthurian tradition, in which the Welsh people thought of themselves as the true British people, the heirs to Arthur and the glorious heroic age attributed to his time.
A "sitting" of bards, or poets, took place as early as 1176, when the Lord Rhys convened the people of Wales to Cardigan (Aberteifi). Rhys (Rhys ap Grufffudd) had been appointed justice of South Wales by Henry II, and his rights to the territories he controlled were recognized by the king. The purpose of this meeting, apart from demonstrating the position of preeminence held by Lord Rhys among the Welsh princes, was to regulate the business of the bardic orders. Metrical rules were set up, and licenses were given to those who had completed their apprenticeship. The event is described by an anonymous writer in the historical document, "Brut y Tywysogion":
At Christmas in that year the Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd
Other noteworthy eisteddfodau were held at Carmarthen in 1451, and at Caerwys in 1523 and 1567, when further rules were drawn up and licenses granted. After Caerwys, with the gradual break-up or anglicization of some of the great families of Wales and the loss of their patronage, the tradition of the early Eisteddfod, for all practical purposes, became extinct, and it was only thanks to the vivid imagination of an 18th century London Welshman that it survived and flourished anew.
held court in splendour at Cardigan, in the castle.
And he set two kinds of contests there; one between
bards and poets, another between harpists and crowders
and pipers and various classes of music-craft.
And he had two chairs set for the victors.
There is a Welsh expression that translates as "The best Welshmen live outside of Wales," and it is noticeable that most advocates of Welsh nationhood in the late 18th century lived in London. It was there that the visionary Edward Williams, better known to posterity by his bardic title Iolo Morganwg, in a stirring speech to the London Welsh Society, gave his spellbound listeners a sense of what it meant to belong to the ancient Celtic race and what they could do to ensure that the ancient Welsh traditions became better known and handed down to posterity. In 1792, a dramatic address by another London Welshman, Sir William Jones had announced the discovery of North America three hundred years before Columbus by Prince Madoc. Jones spoke of the so-called Welsh Indians, descendants of Madoc's explorers, whom he praised as "a free and distinct people, who have preserved their liberty, language, and some trace of their religion to this very day." Though Jones' discoveries were later discounted, the myth of the founding of America by Madoc and a group of fellow Welsh explorers has persisted; it plays a great part in much Welsh literature written subsequent to the late 18th century. It was Jones, too, working in India, who discovered the link between the Celtic languages and Sanskrit, in which the sacred writings of India were written, and this connection gave to the Welsh language a long and proud ancestry of which the nation could be rightly proud.
In the winning of their independence by the Americans, the writings of Welshman
Richard Price had been most influential. When the French Revolution helped spread ideas of liberty throughout Europe, the London Welsh, in a state we can only now describe as euphoria, saw hopes of a revival of Welsh nationhood, if not that of independence from the British Crown. Their first gesture was reestablish the moribund Eisteddfod. The centuries old festival of poetry was to be given a national affirmation, but first it needed a sense of dignity and a clothing of pageantry. Both were provided by the vivid imagination of Iolo Morgannwg. As there was a sad lack of a coherent body of Welsh cultural traditions, Iolo invented them, along with an elaborate and fancy ceremony. Most of these were entirely unknown to the Welsh people, but have since been expanded and elaborated to become a much-loved part of the Eisteddfod ever since. It was Iolo, a stonemason from the Vale of Glamorgan, who invented the Gorsedd (circle), the guild of bards that today plays such a prominent role in Welsh cultural affairs today and which, in their colorful "druids" robes, provides much of the pageantry and excitement attending the events of the Eisteddfod once a year.
In the 1860's the National Eisteddfod Society was founded, and the modern era of the competitions began. The chief contest is still that of poetry, being separated into two categories: for the Chair, and for the Crown. It is still a marvel that thousands of people gather together to hear the adjudications of the entries in the poetry competition and give their applause and admiration to the winning bard. The Eisteddfod, with its modern competitions expanded to include the arts and crafts, country dancing, folk singing, choral competitions of all kinds and drama and prose contests has, over the years, provided a tremendous impetus to the fostering of Welsh as a living, breathing language. No English is allowed on the stage of the huge pavilion. The Eisteddfod even caters to the younger crowd with concerts by modern Welsh Rock groups, and on the Eisteddfod grounds,the Maes (meadow) one can meet old friends, listen to music, browse through hundreds of pavilions that sell Welsh books and records, arts and crafts, goods made of Welsh coal or slate or wool, music and musical instruments, food and drink of all kinds (though alcohol is still forbidden); or catch up with the latest happenings at the various society tents. We must not forget, too, the yearly gathering of the Welsh Youth League (Urdd Gobaith Cymru), second in importance only to the National Eisteddfod of Wales, which also helps keeps the language and cultural traditions of the Welsh people alive by fostering competitions in singing, dancing, poetry, prose and drama, all conducted through the medium of the Welsh language among the nation's youth.
In addition to the National, there is another important Eisteddfod in Wales with, for many, a much broader appeal. After World War II, with its shocking waste of life and disruption of much that had been held dear for so long, a brilliant idea came to the mind of an official of the British Council, Welshman Harold Tudor of Coedpoeth, a little town near Wrexham, Clwyd. Harold conceived the idea of an international folk festival, conducted very much along the lines of the Welsh National Eisteddfod, but open to competitors from all parts of the world. The music organizer of the National, W.S. Gwynn Williams, was very receptive to the idea, especially as it entailed the desire of the Welsh people to contribute in their own unique manner to the healing of the terrible scars left by the War. The site chosen for the new festival was along the banks of the River Dee, in a meadow under the ancient castle of Dinas Bran, and the first Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod duly took place in the summer of 1947, with fourteen different nationalities represented. It has been held each year since, attracting many thousands of spectators and hundreds of competitors, whose colorful native costumes and delightful singing and dancing fill the streets of Llangollen for one whole week every July. (One of the early competitors was the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who came with his father to sing in a choir from Italy in the early years of the festival and who returned to give a goodwill concert in 1995).
Cymanfa Ganu: Hymn Singing
The next Welsh cultural tradition of importance is that of the Cymanfa Ganu. We would expect this to be an ancient custom for a writer as early as Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) noted in 1193 that the Welsh people:
". . .in their musical concerts do not sing in
Yet the Cymanfa Ganu with its emphasis on hymn singing in parts is not an ancient event at all, for it grew out of the Temperance Movement in the mid-nineteenth century. In South Wales, Choral societies were founded as one solution to the grave problem of drink. Because of the unsanitary conditions in the rapidly-growing and hurriedly-thrown together housing developments, water was unsafe to drink and beer was drunk in prodigious quantities. This was one of the worst consequences of the industrialization that was rapidly changing the face of the valleys. To help the workers occupy their time and keep them away from the taverns, the choral movement reflected the social aspirations of the proponents of temperance. On Christmas Day, 1837, a temperance procession marched through the streets of Dowlais, joined by choirs from neighboring towns. Inspired by the success of the day's events, the Gwent and Glamorgan Temperance Movement decided to hold an annual festival of choirs and at the Eisteddfod at Aberdare of 1846, choral competition was added to the list of events. It has remained ever since as one of the most popular and best attended events. Many hymns have been written expressly for the Cymanfa. In the chapels of Wales, choral singing of the beautiful, stirring hymns went hand-in-hand with the temperance movement. In areas of increasing anglicization, the chapels offered a refuge for the besieged language, and in the great religious revivals of the late 19th century, it was inevitable that certain days a year be set aside purely for the singing of hymns. These occasions became the Cymanfaoedd Ganu,(pl) or Hymn Meetings. Conducted entirely in Welsh, they were led by conductors specially trained in bringing forth from their congregations the Welsh hwyl or emotion. Following months of rehearsals in four-part singing, the meetings often lasted all day long. With the decline of attendance in chapel going, especially over the last quarter of a century, many towns in Wales no longer hold the annual Cymanfa, but the tradition has experienced a great revival in North America, where, in a different city each year, thousands of Welsh Americans and Canadians get together to sing their beloved hymns in what has now become a four-day festival.
unison like the inhabitants of other
countries, but in many different parts...
You will hear as many different parts as
there are performers who all at length
unite with organic melody."
Noson Lawen (Merry Night)
Of unknown age is the third great Welsh tradition, the Noson Lawen. In Jack Jones's book "Off to Philadelphia in the Morning," a biography of the great Welsh composer Joseph Parry there is a description of a Noson Lawen held on the estate of Lord Crawshay the ironmaster at Cyfartha Castle, Merthyr Tydfil. The event was held to celebrate the successful bringing in of the hay harvest, always a big event because of the uncertainty of the Welsh weather. Because corn does not grow in Wales, a good hay crop is essential for winter feed for the cattle and horses. The festivities included penillion (the reciting of verses) to the sound of the harp, dancing, and recitation. No doubt prodigious quantities of ale and cider were also consumed, but these are not necessary ingredients for a Noson Lawen. The tradition is similar and often formed part of, the Pilnos, when neighbors gathered to peel rushes around the fire for candle making. During the long, dark winter nights, it was inevitable that music would play a large part in the proceedings, and it seems that the playing of the harp and reciting impromptu verses were key elements in the activities. The Noson Lawen gave everyone a chance to show his or her talents; in modern days, an MC takes charge of the evening and introduces the performers, sometimes professional entertainers. However, in village halls throughout Wales, the old-fashioned Noson Lawen keeps pace with the local Eisteddfod as a living reminder of an old and much-valued cultural tradition.
Nos Galan Gaeaf (All Hallow's Eve)
In addition to preserving the Eisteddfod, the Noson Lawen and the Cymanfa Ganu, Wales has also managed to keep alive other old traditions, though some of these are now confined to particular areas. Many are connected with the old New Year's Eve of Celtic tradition, transformed into the rites connected with the Christian celebration of All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween. In Wales, this night is called Nos Galan Gaeaf (the beginning of the new year), the night when spirits walk abroad. On stiles, or entrances to footpaths, ghosts of dead persons are said to appear at midnight. In some parts of Wales, the ghost was often the Ladi wen (white lady), but in the north, it was usually the more frightening Hwch ddu gwta (tail-less black sow) that appeared. Before dawn, huge bonfires were lit on the hillsides, often two or three within sight of each other. It was a great honor to have your bonfire burn longest and great pains were taken to keep them alight. While apples and potatoes were thrown into the fires for roasting, the watchers would dance around or leap through the flames for good luck. Stones were thrown into the fire; then, when the flames died down, everyone would run for home to escape the clutches of
the Hwch ddu gwta. The next morning, at daybreak, searchers would try to find their stones. Those who succeeded would be guaranteed good luck for the coming year. If you could not find your stone, then bad luck or even death would follow.
On Nos Galan Gaeaf in Montgomeryshire, in many farmhouses, a mash was made of nine ingredients: potatoes, carrots, turnips, peas, parsnips, leeks, pepper, salt and new milk. In the mash was hidden a wedding ring. The young maidens of the local village would dig into the mash with their wooden spoons, anxious to learn their fate, for the one who found the ring would be first married. In Carmarthenshire, the mash of nine ingredients, stwmp naw rhyw, was not used to foretell the future, but nine girls used to meet to make a pancake containing nine ingredients. This was then divided among the girls and eaten. Before morning, each girl would have a vision of her future husband. In many parts of North Wales, where the custom of bundling was a very common practice (much frowned upon by the English judiciary) the young dreamers would often find their future husband in bed with them!! Along with the mash, or the pancakes, came the wassail bowl. The wassail was often put inside a puzzle jug, with many spouts, and the unsuspecting drinker would find himself doused with beer, wine, or cider by drinking from the wrong spout. Some of these puzzle jugs can now be seen at the National Folk Museum of Wales at St. Ffagan,
near Cardiff. The custom is very similar to one observed by the author in southwest Germany, where participants in a contest drank out of a large glass boot that had to be handled a certain way to prevent spillage.
Apples always played a large part in Halloween festivities (they are the one fruit that grows prolifically in the temperamental Welsh climate and can be preserved throughout much of the early winter). The most popular game was apple bobbing, with six or eight perfectly round fruit placed in a large bowl of water set on the floor. Then, with both hands tied behind their backs, the young lads and lasses would try to pick up an apple with only their teeth. Usually they received a nose and mouth full of water for their pains, but no apple!! In some houses, the apples were tied on one end of a stick suspended from the ceiling with a candle tied to the other end. The stick was then rotated and the participants, again with their hands tied behind them, tried to catch the apple with their teeth as it spun around. They usually ended up with a mouth full of candle! Apples played a large part in many other customs, too. If you peeled an apple in one single piece and then threw the peel over your shoulder, the letter of the alphabet it most closely resembled when it hit the ground would be the initial letter of your future partner in marriage.
Other Halloween customs did not involve apples, but the unseen. In the Vale of Glamorgan, at night, when the spirits were roaming the churchyards, one of the braver villagers would put on his coat and vest inside out and recite the Lord's Prayer backwards as he walked around the church a number of times. Then the courageous lad would enter the porch and put his finger through the keyhole of the church door to prevent any spirits from escaping. It was believed that the apparitions of those who would soon die could be spied through the keyhole. In other areas of Wales, groups of youths would dress up in women's clothes with the girls in men's clothing. They would wander from house to house after dark, chanting verses and soliciting gifts of fruit or nuts, used to divine one's future. In other, more rural areas, young men used to dress up in sheepskins and old ragged clothes and disguise or blacken their faces. After chanting their weird rhymes, they would then be given gifts of apples or nuts, and sometimes beer. The groups would be known as the gwrachod (hags or witches). The visiting of these groups were always in fun, but were taken seriously as harbingers of good tidings for the forthcoming year and the expulsion of the bad spirits from the household.
Welsh Cultural Traditions: Part 2