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Some Unique Welsh Christmas Traditions

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

Easter and Halloween traditions in Wales have been documented on these pages previously. Those occasions have some interesting concepts and histories that are unique to Wales, and Christmas time is no exception.

Christmas is a major date in Welsh life, as it is in much of the world. It is a time for family, celebration, friends, gift-giving, eating and maybe even going to church. Within those factors, there are some peculiar and unique traditions that have existed across Wales both historically and even today.

Christmas Eve (Nos cyn y Nadolig)

Let's start with food! A traditional custom on the day before Christmas in Wales is Taffy-making. This is how families whiled away the dark hours of a Christmas Eve night, leading up to the early morning church service on Christmas morning. Toffee was boiled in pans on open fires and dollops were then dropped into icy cold water. The taffy would curl into all sorts of shapes - like letters, and this was apparently a way of divining the initials of the younger, unmarried family members' future loves! So it was a match making ritual, family activity and festive meal all in one.

Christmas Day (Nadolig)

The custom in many parts of Wales on Christmas Day was to attend a very early church service known as “Plygain” (daybreak), between 3am and 6am. In many cases, men gathered in rural churches to sing carols during this three hour long service. The custom managed to survive in many rural areas and smaller towns, and because of its simplicity and beauty it is being revived in many others. After the service, a day of feasting and drinking would begin.

Boxing Day/St. Stephen's Day (Gwyl San Steffan)

The day after Christmas Day was historically celebrated with “holly-beating” or “holming.” Young men and boys would beat the unprotected arms or legs of young girls with holly branches, even until they bled! In some areas, the last person to get out of bed in the morning was the one to be beaten with sprigs of holly. Luckily for us today these customs died out before the end of the 19th century...

A Welsh Christmas tradition includes the act of holly-beating
Preparing for the tradition of holly-beating

New Year's Eve (Nos Galan)

Many countries have a custom for letting in the New Year that involves the letting out of the Old Year and the welcoming in the new one, often with gifts for good luck for the coming year. In Wales a New Year custom was that if the first visitor in the New Year 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 considered bad luck.

Some other Welsh customs associated with the New Year regarded debts and payments. It was believed to be back luck to carry over debts in a new year. Also, it was considered a negative to ever lend anything to anyone on New Years Day. Therefore, the behaviour of an individual on this day was an indication of how they would behave all year, and you didn't want to get off to a bad start.

Perhaps the strangest and most unique custom was a pre-Christian custom associated with the end of the Christmas season, formerly carried out in all parts of Wales but now almost disappeared, is that of the Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare). It can however still be seen at Llangynwyd near Maesteg every New Years Day.

A horse’s skull with false ears and eyes attached, along with reins and bells, covered with a white sheet and colourfully decorated with ribbons, is carried around on a pole. The Mari Lwyd is carried from door to door and is accompanied by a party of people. At each door, poems are recited in Welsh. Those inside the house reply also in verse refusing to let the Mari Lwyd in until this battle of verse and insults is won. So the Welsh traditions of singing, poetry and story telling go back centuries in many forms.