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...
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.
The Mari Lwyd parties gained a bad reputation for for drunkenness and vandalism as they roamed the villages. This was seen as unacceptable behaviour as the years passed, especially with the rise of the Chapel and Methodism in Wales, and so the custom was changed. Christmas carols were sung at the doors and the battle of insults and verse disappeared. In some areas the Welsh language gave way to English. By the middle of the 20th century the custom of the Mari had almost died out.
This ancient custom is being revived today though. It is also being revived by students at the University of Wales through the streets of Aberystwyth, with emphasis on the old tradition of drunkenness. There is even a display within Swansea Museum dedicated to the Mari Lwyd now (when it was last open in spring 2020).
New Year's Day (Dydd Calan)
The most popular New Year’s custom was one that was carried out in all parts of Wales: the Calennig (small gift). On January 1st, from dawn until noon, groups of young boys would visit all the houses in the village carrying evergreen twigs and a cup of cold water drawn from the local well. The boys would then use the twigs to splash people with water. In return, they would receive the Calennig, usually in the form of copper coins. The custom, in various forms, survived in some areas well after World War II, at least in the form of the chanting of a small verse or two in exchange for small coins.
On top of all these ancient customs, modern Wales has adopted the mainland European style of Christmas Market one would usually associate with Frankfurt, Salzburg or even Birmingham. Cardiff and Swansea, the two foremost cities of Wales, both embrace the traditional wood huts and cabins across their high streets for weeks on end every November and December, where craftspeople sell their jewellery, cider, cheese and ornaments. Cardiff's iconic Victorian Arcades are decorated in endless lights that make them ore glamorous than they already are. Ice rinks, Bavarian beer halls, amusements and ferris wheels have taken over both cities these days as well, making Christmas a longer celebration than it ever has been before.
All of these traditions, some of which survive in the 21st century, are yet more evidence that this little country within the British Isles remains the mystery of western Europe.