Updated: May 21
Being a majority Christian country, Wales celebrates Easter like all Christians around the world. It is a time for family holidays, a break from work or school, eating chocolate, hopefully experiencing some warm weather and of course, perhaps visiting church across Easter week and especially on Easter Sunday.
Wales is, however, not as religious a country today as one might expect. According to the most recent census results on the matter, Wales is 57% Christian, so not far above half of its three million people. In comparison, a bigger and supposedly more diverse country like England is as much as 60% Christian. More interestingly, perhaps, in that 2011 census, over 32% of people said they were non-religious, and a further 7% claimed no preference at all, so 40% of people are potentially not religious in Wales. Using the example from across the border again, only 24% of England claim to be non-religious. Those numbers are lower again in Scotland and Ireland.
Easter has been celebrated throughout Welsh history in many different ways. Firstly, historically the Celtic Church of Wales in the Early Middle Ages had developed its own method of dating Easter, and refused to conform to the papal as established by Archbishop Augustine's in 597. Over the following century, when most of the churches in the Celtic-speaking lands came to accept the Roman Easter, Wales was the only territory still refusing to conform. In the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, of 731, The English historian Bede claimed that the Welsh "upheld their own bad customs against the true Easter of the Catholic Church."
Wales' rogue religious feelings continued for centuries, whether it be refusing the English bible in favour of Welsh, or with the growth of nonconformist chapels across the country through the 19th and 20th centuries. Eventually however, Wales conformed to the Papal norm of dating Easter, on the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox.
On top of that, much like with Christmas and regardless of religious leanings, there are a range of peculiar and fun traditions surrounding Easter that are unique to this small country, and some of them are hundreds of years old.
In Tenby, one of south Wales' prettiest and most colourful towns, historically nobody works on Good Friday. With very few people, or traffic, to be seen on the streets for the whole day, people walked barefoot to church, so as not to "disturb the earth", where Jesus lay.
The custom of 'making Christ's bed' was also popular in Tenby in recent centuries. Children would gather reeds and weave them into a 'Christ' shaped figure, which was then laid on a wooden cross and moved to a quiet part of a farm or field to rest peacefully.
Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is known as Sul y Blodau (Sunday of Flowers) in Welsh, as it is traditional to decorate and clean graves of loved ones with lots of beautiful flowers on this day. In that regard, Wales is like many countries, where people visit their lost loved ones on notable family and religious holidays.
Llun y Pasg is Easter Monday. It is often celebrated with a procession up to the top of a hill or a mountain before sunrise in order to watch the sun rise. Wales is, of course, renowned for its hills, and especially the beautiful natural landscapes that are on view from atop them.
In Llangollen, villagers used to walk to the summit of Dinas Bran to greet the arrival of the sun with three somersaults! This is making something of a comeback with young people at sunrise today. Continuing the fascination with hills and mountains, Dinas Bran is famous for its inclusion in many medieval Welsh folk tales.
In other areas, bowls or buckets of water were taken to the top of the nearest hill (hills are becoming a theme) to catch the sun dancing in the reflection of the water.
One tradition that is growing in popularity once again is ‘clapio wyau’ or ‘egg clapping’, particularly in Anglesey, north-west Wales. Children on the island during the 19th century would walk around nearby farms asking for eggs by clapping a wooden percussive instrument while singing on their way.
A festival called Rogationtide was celebrated on the 5th Sunday after Easter. This was the Pagan spring fertility rites and Roman blessing of crops; Wales being strongly associated with Roman and Pagan traditions historically. Local Church officials should visit local crop farmers on this day to bless their crops.
Ascension Day is, of course, on the 40th day after Easter. This is the Roman Festival honouring streams and fountains. On Ascension day wells were rededicated to saints in Wales and people would be worried about accidents. For example, you wouldn't wash clothes on this day as it was feared that a person would die as the clothes dried. Miners and farmers would also refuse to work through fear of mishaps (Which sounds like a convenient excuse for a well-earned day off!).
So, while Wales might not be as religious a country as expected, it does contain an abundance of traditions across Easter week and beyond. The Welsh can also be relied upon to come up with something different when it comes to feast days and celebrations, much like at Christmas time and Halloween as well.