Y Gwyliau - A Welsh Christmas.

Geese at Cowbridge via People's Collection Wales

From The Plygain to the Mari Lwyd, I'll be exploring some of the weird and wonderful customs/traditions our ancestors took part in during Christmastide. Although a majority of these customs are now obsolete, it is always interesting to look back on how Christmas once was. 

"During the Victorian period, Christmas changed gradually from an intensely social occasion in which all the community took part to one of family celebration in the seclusion of private houses."

In many parts of Wales, Christmas Day meant rising early. It some places, it meant staying up overnight. This was to attend The Plygain Service in the local parish church/chapel.

The hour of the Plygain seems to have varied between 3am and 6am, with the latter being more desirable in later years.  An account from Mrs. Thrale's Journal (1774) notes that: "the inhabitants of Dyffryn Clwyd kindled their lights at two in the morning and sang and danced to the harp until the call to the Plygain."

In Tenby, crowds carrying torches, shouting verses and blowing cow horns. Forming a procession, the crowd would escort the Rector from his house to the service. The torches were extinguished on the porch of the church. At the relighting of the torches, the same procession was repeated after the Plygain Service.

Attendees of the Plygain were advised to bring their own candles. In some places, for example, Llanfyllin, special candles known as 'Canwyllau Plygain' were made by local chandeliers. These candles were made to withstand wind and came at the cost of two pence or four pence, depending on the chosen size. During the service, the church was decorated with Mistletoe, candles coloured candles, and decked with holly.

Plygain Singers via People's Collection Wales.

The Plygain service itself was an abbreviated form of the usual Sunday morning service. This was followed by carols composed by local poets in the early weeks of December. In some cases, up to fifteen carols were sung at one service.

An account of the Plygain Service described by William Payne:

'Now the church is in a blaze, now crammed, body, aisles, gallery, now Shon Robert, the club-footed shoemaker, and his wife, descending from the singing seat to the lower and front part of the gallery,. 

The crowds are wholly silent and rapt in admiration. Then the good Rector, and his curate, David Pugh, stand up, and read the Morning Service abbreviated, finishing with the prayer for All Conditions of Men. Prayers over, the singers begin again more carols then silence in the audience, broken at appropriate pauses by the suppressed hum, of delight and approval, till between eight and nine, hunger telling on the singers, the Plygain is over and the Bells strike out a round peal.' 

The decline of this tradition is said to have been caused by “disorder on account of men under the influence of drink attending the church after a night of revelry..” 

With the Plygain Service over, families returned to their farmsteads and house to continue the Christmas Day Festivities. This included a Christmas breakfast of hot ale, cheese, and toasted bread.

In some parts of Wales, it was customary for a Christmas Pie to be made. One such pie was made of a boned roasted goose stuffed with a boiled tongue. This was then encased in pastry lined with mincemeat and eaten cold. It was served in addition to mince pies and was intended to last the whole Christmas week.

Other popular Christmas Day activities included 'rough and tumble' football, squirrel and rabbit hunting.

Wellcome Collection

St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day) saw the custom of 'Holming.' This was the act of beating a person with Holly. The last person to awake of this day was beaten with branches of Holly and named 'Tapster.' For the rest of the year, the 'Tapster' was given the task of undertaking the most menial tasks of the family.

Animals did not escape this tradition of 'Holming.' Animals were also bled on this day. It was thought that this was good for the health of the animal and brought good luck to the homestead.

“About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses, for then they are commonly at house, then Spring comes on, the Sun being now coming back from the Winter Solstice, and there are three or four days of rest, and if it be upon St. Stephen's Day, is not the worse seeing there are with it three days' rest.” - Brand Popular Antiques  

An Old man who lived in Penmynydd in the early part of the nineteenth century would holm himself on St. Stephen's Day until he bled.

St. John's Well, Newton Nottage via Louvain Rees.

Letting in the New Year was a belief that the first person to enter the homestead on New Years Day foretold the years' luck.

  • In Pencoed, it was unlucky to see a red-haired man first. 
  • In Pembrokeshire, it was unlucky to see a woman first. 

Little boys were paraded all through the house so as to 'break the witch' should some girl or woman have been thoughtless enough to call.

On a New Years morning, boys visited local houses carrying Spring-water freshly drawn from the local well. This water was mixed with Rosemary, Holly, and Myrtle. As well as sprinkling the faces of all those they met on their way, in exchange for a 'few coppers', the boys would also sprinkle every room in a home with the water.

Children and Hel Calennig via People's Collection Wales

Hel Calennig was the custom on giving gifts on New Year's Day. Much like trick or treating, children would gather themselves in little groups and go from house to house wishing the occupants a Happy New Year and Good Health. 

This was symbolised by each childbearing an apple (sometimes orange) stuck full of corn, decorated with springs of Evergreen and three short skewers to serve as a support for the children to hold in their hands. 

Verses were sung at the door of the house and in return for their good wishes, the children were given food and even sometimes money. 

Mi godais heddiw ma's o'm tŷ
A'm cwd a'm pastwn gyda mi,
A dyma'm neges ar eich traws,
Sef llanw'm cwd â bara a chaws. 

I left my house today
With my bag and my stick,
And here is my message to you,
Fill my bag with bread and cheese.

The Mari Lwyd via People's Collection Wales

The Mari Lwyd, sometimes known as 'Pen Ceffyl', 'Y March' or 'Y Gynfasfarch' is a very well know Welsh custom.

The Mari Lwyd consisted of a horse's skull which had been buried in fresh lime – This was usually the same skull used as the Mari Lwyd a year earlier. In some cases, a wooden block was used instead of a horse's skull. 

A pole was inserted into skull or wooden block and a white sheet draped over it. Coloured ribbons were used to decorate the skull with glass used to represent the eyes. Pieces of black cloth were then attached to serve as ears. With the gentleman chosen to carry the Mari Lwyd stood under the sheet holding the pole, reigns and bells were then attached.

The Mari Lwyd party consisted of a Leader, Sergeant, Merryman and Punch and Judy. The Merryman brought his fiddle, Punch and Judy were dressed in tattered clothes with blackened faces with the rest of the party decorated with ribbons and sashes. 

As the Mari Lwyd approached the house it was intending to visit, the leader would tap on the door while the rest of the part including the Mari sang traditional rhymes. If the door was answered, the party and inhabitants of the house would engage in a 'battle of wits.' 

Wel, dyma ni'n dwad
Gyfelillion diniwad
I' mofyn am gennad - i ganu 

Translation: Behold here we come, simple friends, to ask for permission to sing.

Rhowch glywed, wyr doethion 
Pa faint ycho ddynion, 
A pheth yn wych union - 
yw'ch enwau? 

Translation: Let us hear, wise men, how many of you there are, and what exactly are your names? 

When the house was entered, Y Fari paid special attention to the female occupants. This was done by neighing at the women as well as biting and nudging them. The Merryman played his fiddle while Punch and Judy began their show. 

Judy entered with her broom to clean the hearth. She was then knocked to the floor by Punch who ran around attempting to kiss the women of the household. Punch was then chased through the house by Judy and hit with her broom. 

Having sung and danced, the party sat to eat food and drink ale. On their departure, the Mari Lwyd wished the household a Happy New Year.

Dymunwn ich lawenydd
I gynnal blwyddyn newydd 
Tra paro'r gwr i dincian cloch
Well, well y boch chwi beunydd 

Translation: We wish you joy to live a new year; as long as the man tinkles his bell, may you improve daily.

(Sources: People's Collection Wales - Trevor M. Owen - BritishNewspaperArchives - NLW) 

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