Welsh Culture & Traditions|
Y Nadolig (Christmas)
As in many other European countries, Christmas and its attendant celebrations came to be the best-loved time of the year in Wales, and there are many traditions connected with it, some religious and some entirely secular. For example, this was the time of the year when a plough was brought into the house and placed under the dining table to mark the beginning of the Christmas season, when work was suspended on the farms. The plough share was ceremoniously wetted with beer to show that even if it wasn't being used for a short while, its services were not forgotten and should be rewarded. Much of the rest of the day was spent in feasting and merry making, but it was also a time for rough and tumble games of football, or squirrel and rabbit hunting.
In many parts of Wales up until quite recently, it was the custom to get up very early on Christmas morning to attend the Church service known as Plygain (Daybreak) held between 3 and 6 a.m. To pass the time during the long overnight wait on Christmas Eve, young people would make treacle toffee and decorate their houses with freshly gathered mistletoe and holly. It is known that for many centuries before the celebration of Christ's birth, country people brought green plants indoors in the depths of winter, especially evergreens, which are seen as symbols of the return of spring. The mistletoe was considered both as a magical plant and a powerful protector of the home from evil. The holly, a symbol of eternal life, was also prominently displayed, along with the ivy, rosemary and bay leaves. All too, had pleasant scents to disguise the many foul odors that had built up during the long months when doors and windows were shut tight against the winter cold. Dancing and singing to the harp under their festoons of greenery, many people spent an enjoyable Christmas Eve with their neighbors until the more serious time arrived to go to church.
There, the churches were ablaze with light, provided by as many as several hundred special Plygain candles brought by the parishioners in a recreation of the ancient festival of light. The Plygain itself was often a short form of morning service in which carols were sung by visiting soloists and groups of singers, but in some churches, as many as 15 carols were sung, and services may have lasted until 8 or 9 in the morning. The custom managed to survive in many country areas, and because of its simplicity and beauty is being revived in many others. The Plygain service sometimes came to an end when groups of men under the influence of b drink, after a night spent merry-making, came to the church and created disorder. Often, however, a day of feasting began the end of the service, the principal dish consisting of toasted bread and cheese (the traditional "Welsh Rabbit"), washed down with prodigious quantities of ale. For those who could afford it, goose was the main course.on the Christmas menu
Gwyl San Steffan (St. Stephen's Day, Boxing Day: Dec. 26th)
As in most of the rest of the British Isles, the day after Christmas Day was always most significant in the day-to-day events of Wales. Some activities that took place on this day seem peculiarly Welsh, including that of "holly-beating" or "holming." In this, it was customary for young men and boys to slash the unprotected arms of female domestic servants with holly 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 sprigs of holly and made to carry out all the commands of his family. On many farms, horses and other animals were bled in a custom that was thought to be good for the animals' health, even increasing their stamina! Luckily for the livestock, and for the young women of the neighborhood who earned their keep as domestics, not to mention those who stayed in bed of a morning, these customs died out before the end of the 19th century (though there are many, I'm sure, who would welcome their return).
Nos Galan (New Year's Eve)
The activities of the Christmas season came to a climax at the New Year. It has been suggested that the detaching of one's self from the events of the immediate past and at the beginning of a new future gave the celebration special significance.
One custom associated with the end of the Christmas season, formerly carried out in all parts of Wales but only surviving the vicissitudes of the centuries in a few villages in Glamorganshire, is that of the Mari Lwyd. This consists of a horse's skull with false ears and eyes attached, along with reins and bells, covered with a white sheet and decorated with colored strips of cloth or bright ribbons and carried around on a pole. The horse's jaw is operated to open and close usually by a young, agile man, disguised under the sheet, who carries the Mari Lwyd from door to door accompanied by his companions, Sergeant, Merryman, Punch and Judy, and various others, all dressed in motley and faces blackened. At the house doors, verses are recited by the team as they beg for admittance. Those inside the house reply, also in verse, refusing entry until the visitors inevitably win the impromptu contest (they usually have prepared a whole list of impromptu verses well in advance). Once inside the house, the Mari chases the young ladies, one person plays the fiddle, Judy pretends to sweep the hearth, Punch engages in all kinds of mischief and so on until it is time for food and drink (the wassail) to be offered to end the nonsense. After feasting, the party goes on to the next house and the verse contest begins anew, continuing in this manner throughout the day. Good news concerning this ancient custom is that it is being revived in many areas where it had formerly died out, especially by students at the University of Wales, whose merry making in the streets of Aberystwyth is carried on entirely through the medium of the Welsh language.
At the New Year, the following Welsh customs were also observed, many of them
until quite recently.
All existing debts were to be paid. If not, then the debtor would remain in debt throughout the whole year. It was also considered very unlucky to lend anything on New Year's Day, even a candle. How one behaved on this special day was an indication of how he would behave throughout the coming year. Fore example, if a man rose early on January 1st, his early rising was ensured the rest of the year. The custom of letting in meant that good or bad luck was brought to the household by the first visitor of the New Year. In some areas, it was unlucky for a man to see a woman first; in others, it was unlucky for a woman to see a man first. Some people believed that it was unlucky to see a red-haired man first. In my own youth in Clwyd, having been blessed with red hair, I was never allowed into anyone's home on this day, until a dark person had first crossed the threshold. If a woman was bold enough to be the first person to enter a neighbor's house, then there had to follow a parade of little boys throughout each room to break the witch's spell!
The most popular New Year's custom was one that was carried out in all parts of Wales: the Calennig (small gift). Very early on the morning of January 1st, groups of young boys would visit all the houses in the village carrying an evergreen twig and a cup of cold water drawn from the local well. The boys would then use the twigs to sprinkle the faces of everyone they met. In return, they would receive the Calennig, usually in the form of copper coins. Even the doorways of some houses (when the occupants were still asleep or away) were sprinkled, and all the while a short verse was sung or chanted that celebrated the letting in of the New Year. The custom continued from dawn until noon, (after which it was considered very unlucky indeed), and in certain areas the boy carried apples or oranges into which sprigs of holly or corn were inserted. These offerings later became very fancy, with raisins, hazel nuts, or colored ribbons all helping to decorate the fruit. The custom, in various forms, survived in some areas well after World War II, at least the chanting of a small verse or two in exchange for small coins.
Twelfth Night (the evening of Jan. 5th)
Twelfth Night was celebrated as the end of Christmastide. The decorations, including holly and mistletoe, were taken down, the burned out Yule Log was removed from the fireplace, and its ashes stored temporarily. These were then buried along with the seeds planted in the ensuing spring to ensure a good harvest.
Each of the twelve days after Christmas was considered, in the countryside at least, to represent the corresponding months of the year, and the weather on these days was carefully observed and noted as a guide as to what could be expected for the rest of the year.
Feast of the Epiphany
On January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany was an important celebration in Wales. In Glamorganshire, a huge loaf or cake was prepared, which was then divided up into three parts to represent Christ, the Virgin Mary and the three Wise Men. A large company of neighbors was invited to be present at the dividing of the cake in which rings were concealed. Whoever discovered a ring in his piece of cake (or bread) was elected as King or Queen or Misrule and presided over the day's festivities. January 6th, of course, was the date of the old-calendar Christmas Day, and many of the festivities connected with it lasted well over a century after the new calendar was introduced in 1752.
To wassail means to be "whole, healthy", and both Christmas and New Year were marked by wassailing, which included both drinking and singing. The custom seems to have begun as a way of wishing the farmer successful harvests from his fields and the increase of his livestock during the coming year. The wassail bowl itself, which had twelve handles, was filled with cakes, baked apples and sugar into which was poured warm beer and spices. The bowl was then passed around hand to hand in the circle of friends and neighbors gathered round the blazing fire until the beer was consumed. The remaining food was then shared out and eaten. On Twelfth Night, the wassail bowl was taken to the house of newlyweds or to a family which had recently come to live in the district, songs were sung outside the house door. Those inside the house would recited or sing special verses, to be answered by the revelers outside.
Hunting the Wren
Another Welsh custom associated with Twelfth Night. A group of young men would go out into the countryside to capture a wren (the smallest bird in the British Isles). The bird would then be placed in a small, decorated cage or bier and carried around from house to house and shown in exchange for money or gifts of food and drink (if a wren could not be found then a poor unfortunate sparrow would have to undergo the ritual).
Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day)
It was the last day upon which feasting, drinking and merriment could take place before the solemnities and fasting of Lent began. On this day, the last supplies of butter and fat were made into pancakes (crempog). Naturally, plenty of eggs were used as well, and woe betide the unfortunate hen that failed to lay before noon. It was a custom in the country districts to "thrash the hen," the poor creature being taken out to the village green or large pasture and buried in a hole in the ground with only her head sticking out. Blindfolded youths would then try to hit the hen with a stick. If anyone succeeded, the hen would become his property, to be killed on the following day and cooked and eaten with the proper ceremony.
In Kidwelly (Cydweli), on the eve of Shrove Tuesday, tin cans were kicked up and down the narrow streets. This was probably to commemorate the duty of putting away all the working utensils, pots and pans etc., associated with the more abundant and tastier food that was forbidden during the ensuing period of Lent.
In a few areas, the Christmas decorations were not taken down on Twelfth Night, but remained hanging until Shrove Tuesday, when they were removed and burned during the pancake feast. On this day, too, the poor people of the village went around from door to door begging for gift of flour and lard in order to make their own pancakes, for no house was to be without its supply of crempog. In the county of Caernarfon, the following rhyme was chanted (translated from the Welsh):
Lady of the house and good family
In yet another part of the same county, in Northwest Wales, the following verse
Will you give us a pancake please,
With a large lump of yellow butter
To let us swallow it with ease.
If you are a kind woman,
Put a lump of treacle on it.
If you are a nasty woman,
Only put a lump of butter on it,
Some for the cat, and a bit for the dog.
And a pancake in the frying pan.
Please give me a pancake.
Y Crochon Crewys (The Lenten Crock)
If you have no butter in the house,
Then may I have a large spoon of treacle.
My Mam is too poor to buy flour,
And my Dad is too lazy to go to work.
Food always played a big part in country traditions. In Carmarthenshire,
a crochon crewys was "secretly" placed on the window sill of a farm house or village house under cover of darkness, and a verse was recited. The crochon was usually a scooped-out turnip of other large vegetable. It was filled with crusts of bread, with salt, leeks and other vegetables added as available. The verse, translated from the Welsh, went as follows, but varied in different localities.
Lenten crock in the window sill.
At that point in the proceedings the kitchen door would open, and the singers (usually a gang of young boys) would run away. In one was caught, he would be brought back to the house and there he would have to clean and polish all the best boots. When he had finished this task, he would be given a reward of pancakes.
Bread, salt, leek, broth.
If I am not back before Easter Monday
Then a fine of 100 pounds.
Sul y Blodau (Sunday of the Flowers)
Palm Sunday is known in the Welsh-speaking districts of Wales as Sul y Blodau, for on this day it is the custom to decorate the graves in the churchyards with beautiful and fanciful flower arrangements as a preparation for Easter, the festival of the Resurrection. After the darkness and drabness of winter, as well as the solemnity of Lent, it was also the time to put on new clothes. Graves are often cleaned, weeded, and whitewashed before being decked with garlands of such plants as rosemary, rue, crocuses, daffodils and primroses in fanciful displays and patterns. Sul y Blodau is also the name given to a well-known Welsh lullaby, based on a poem by "Eifion Wyn" in which the death of a younger brother, Goronwy Wyn, is lamented by his mother.
Y Groglith (Good Friday)
Various customs are associated with Good Friday in Wales. Some of the more well documented ones come from the town of Tenby, in Southwest Wales. Here, business of every kind was totally suspended on this day, with no horse or cart (and very few people) to be seen on the streets at any hour. People also walked barefoot to church, so as not to "disturb the earth" the sacred burial ground of Christ. On the same day, also in Tenby, the custom was long held of "making Christ's bed." A quantity of long reeds was gathered from the river bank and woven by young people into the shape of a human figure. The woven "Christ" was then laid on a wooden cross and left in a quiet part of a field or pasture to rest in peace.
Llun y Pasg (Easter Monday)
Hills and mountains have played a great part in the observance of Welsh customs throughout the centuries and the festivities on Easter Day are no exception. In many parts of the country, the celebrations for this most joyful of days begins before sunrise with a procession to the top of the nearby mountain. Crowds of people climb up to the highest point in the area to watch the sun "dance" as it rises through the clouds in honor of the resurrection of Christ. In Llangollen, in the Vale of Clwyd, villagers used to greet the arrival of the sun's rays on the top of Dinas Bran (a location famous for its inclusion in many medieval Welsh folk tales) by dancing three somersaults. Nowadays, a pilgrimage to the top of the mountain is sufficient celebration.In other areas, a basin of water was taken to the top of the nearest hill to catch the reflection of the sun "dancing" on the horizon. Another favorite spot in Northeast Wales for this Easter festivity is still the summit of Moel Fammau, in the Clwydian hills.
Other Welsh Customs
The giving of hand-made wooden love-spoons to one's sweetheart (or intended lover) seems to be a peculiarly Welsh custom, though the custom of presenting various wooden articles as gifts was widespread in many countries of Europe from the end of the 17th century. In Wales, the wooden articles took the form of intricately decorated spoons, given by the suitor as a prelude to courtship and a token of his interest. Like the making of the rush candles on Pilnos, the carving of love spoons from a single piece of wood became a special pastime enjoyed by the peasantry in the long, idle winter months. As in many other customs, the eating of food seems to have a lot to do with the choice of a spoon as a gift. The practice of using a particular utensil to eat led perhaps to the spoon's being chosen, first for its utilitarian use, but then as a symbol of a desire to help one's lover. No longer to be used for eating, the spoons were given long handles and could be hung on the wall as reminders or as decorations. Elaborate patterns and intricate designs began to proliferate, and Welsh love spoons began to appear in every conceivable size and shape, and in different kinds of wood. Many produced today are made by a number of craftsmen anxious to show off their skills and imagination. Some of the designs can be interpreted as follows: two bowls sprouting from one handle signifies "we two are united;" keys or keyholes mean "my house is also yours;" an anchor signifies that the donor has found "a place to stay and settle down" and so on. Many spoons are carved with a swivel or chain attachment with the number of links showing the number of children desired. Naturally, many spoons were given as Valentines, and have the heart or entwined hearts motif; some have initials of the lovers. Some were made as puzzle spoons, with captive spheres or balls being carved in the handles. The finest display of love-spoons is now on permanent display, along with their history and areas of manufacture, at the Welsh Folk Museum, St. Ffagan.
Expectant mothers in many parts of Wales had to be very careful what they did before the baby was born. For example, if she stepped over a grave, it was believed that the baby would die soon after birth or would be still-born. If she dipped her hands into dirty water, the child would grow up having coarse hands. If the child was born under a new moon, it would grow up to be eloquent in speech. If born at night, it would be able to see visions, ghosts and phantom funerals. During the christening ceremony, if the baby held up its head, it would live to be very old. If, however, it allowed its head to fall back or to rest on the arm of the person holding it, the child would die an early death. At some christening ceremonies, specially designed drinking glasses were used to consume prodigious amounts of liquor in toasts to the newly baptized infant. (to be fair, it has to be remembered that it is only in this century that most of the water supplies in Wales have become fit to drink, and beer was always not only considered a safe drink, but was also thought to confer strength).
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