Weird and Wonderful Welsh Christmas Traditions

I love listening to how everyone celebrates Christmas, and am always interested in how different their traditions are. We all do Christmas in our own way, from spending with family and friends to taking a tropical holiday, cooking and baking and gift exchanges. I also love how ancient Christmas traditions, some that date back centuries, are still entwined in our modern celebrations. In the spirit of the season, here are some of the weird and wonderful ways the people of Wales have enjoyed spending their Christmases over the years.

Christmas Tree Cardiff Castle
The Christmas tree and lights at Cardiff Castle


Welsh Christmas Traditions – Calennig

It is believed that trick or treat was invented in Wales, as for centuries something very similar has been taking place on New Year’s Eve. From dawn until noon, all around Wales, groups of young boys would go from door to door. They would carry three-legged totems, chant rhymes, splash people with water and asking for Calennig, which is the gift of small change.

Welsh Christmas Traditions – Holly and Mistletoe

Originating with the Druids, around the 3rd Century, this is an ancient tradition in Wales. Holly and Mistletoe would be used to decorate the home. Both of these plants are considered to be good luck, and while the reason has been forgotten in modern times, we continue to use them both in our festive decorations. In Norse mythology, mistletoe was a symbol of love and friendship, despite it being poisonous to humans. Holly was a fertility symbol and was believed to ward off witches and bad luck.

Holly holly
I took this picture at Cardiff Market, a brilliant place to get local produce as well as meat, fish, fruit and veg.

Welsh Christmas Traditions – Holming

This is a slightly more modern one. On Boxing Day, the day after Christmas Day, during the 19th Century, the unpleasant ritual of Holming took place. The last person out of bed that morning would be beaten with prickly holly sprigs. If you were unlucky enough to be both a woman and a late sleeper, you would have two lots of holly stick Holmings.

Welsh Christmas Traditions – Hunting the Wren

Hunting the Wren is a Welsh Christmas Tradition that can be traced back as far as Neolithic times around 6500 years ago. It usually takes place on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, coinciding with St Stephen’s Day. St Stephen was the first Christmas martyr to be stoned to death in the year 36 for blasphemy against the early Jewish faith. It is believed that when St Stephen was in hiding in a bush from his enemies, a wicked wren gave his position away.

The hunting of the wren in Wales involves capturing and killing a wren, placing it in a box and then marching from door to door. When people open their doors, they would pay to see the wrens body inside the box and then let the procession in for food and drinks. If the procession refused entry, a special song would be sung wishing ill luck on the house. It was also seen as a way of starting the approaching new year with a clean slate.

Welsh Christmas Traditions – Mari Lwyd

This is the creepiest of the Welsh Christmas Traditions, which involves decorating the skull of a horse and wearing it above your head. The earliest documented occurrence of Mari Lwyd was in the 17th Century and involved groups of men coming together to follow a makeshift hobby horse around the town.

The Mari Lwyd horse would be carried by the ‘leader’, and he would be followed by his men dressed in costume or fancy attire, such as the playful characters of Punch and Judy. They would make their way from door to door requesting entry into the homes of locals in song. Those dressed as Punch would tap on the door or knock the floor to keep up the pace of the song, and Judy would brush the windows and walls with a broom.

The owners of the homes would deny entry, again through the power of song, and this continued back and forth until one or the other gave up. If the owners of the home were first to yield, they had to let the group in for food and merriment. The homeowners also had to ensure they warned Punch not to touch their fireplace too; otherwise, he would rake out ember and ash from the open fire grates.

Today, wooden horses or homemade horses are used instead, and it is supposed to bring different communities together. I am happy for a carol singer or two, but you and your fake dead horse are not coming into my house this Christmas!

Mari Lwyd
Image courtesy of Hollie Bennett

Welsh Christmas Traditions – Plygain

One of the oldest Welsh Christmas traditions, Plygain, is still celebrated today. The earliest known recording of a Plyagain service is from the 13th Century and involves gathering together in rural churches where men belt out their favourite Welsh carols into the early morning. (I suppose the modern-day version is singing in Caroline Street to your bag of chips, while wearing your festive hat or jumper, after a few too many.)

Traditionally the service would begin around 3am and involve a street procession where the priest would be escorted from his home to the parish. The walkers would sound cow horns, and hundreds of candles and torches would light the way. The service would stop at first light when everyone would go home to celebrate Christmas morning together.

Welsh Christmas Traditions – Taffy

For those who like to indulge before Christmas, this sweet-toothed Welsh Christmas tradition takes place on Christmas Eve. Families would gather together and begin the process of making tasty Christmas Day treats for everyone. The tradition started when confectionary was a luxury, and few could afford the joy of having sweets regularly.
Taffy is another word for toffee. It is made with rich salted butter and sugar, which was expensive to buy years ago. These days we tend to cut up, roughly chop or smash the toffee, but another way to do it is to drop blobs of molten taffy into ice-cold water and watch it cool. Once cooled, the family would play a game of picking out shapes that resembled letters and using them to initial or spell out their names. Other traditions included picking out random ‘letters’ and using them to name potential future children.

Mulled Wine
Ok, this is mulled wine but we can pretend it is a modern Wassail…

Welsh Christmas Traditions – Wassail

This Welsh Christmas Tradition is right up my street. Instead of mulled wine or cider, the Wassail is an elaborate bowl filled with spices and sugar then topped with warm beer. It was often drunk during the Mari Lwyd procession. The Wassail bowl is passed around the party for all to share, and when taking a sip, custom dictates, the drinker should make a wish. In earlier times the wishes would be along the lines of a healthy harvest or good fortune for their family for the coming year, not a Furreal Cubby Bear or a Fortnite Battle Bus.

Do you adopt any of these Welsh Christmas Traditions, or will you be including any in your celebrations this year?

 

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