This will be our third Christmas in Wales, and while COVID means that things aren’t quite how we expected them to be, one of the things we love about living in our small Welsh village is the real sense of community, especially at this time of year. Sadly, the beautiful candlelit Christmas Eve carol service in the local church, St LLawddog’s, has had to be cancelled again this year, but hopefully, in years to come, we’ll get to enjoy some of these fascinating traditional Welsh Christmas and New Year traditions.
Noson Gyflaith (Toffee Evening)
In some parts of north Wales, families would invite friends to their homes, in turn, to spend an evening eating, playing games, storytelling – and making toffee.
The ingredients were boiled, and when at the right temperature were poured onto a stone slate, or even the hearth stone. Then members of the gathering would cover their hands in butter and ‘pull’ the warm toffee, twisting it until it became golden yellow in colour.
Christmas for many in Wales meant getting up extremely early for the traditional plygain service at the parish church. Plygain was held variously between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. and many would stay up all night to await the service, filling their time with decorating their house with holly and mistletoe, singing and dancing, or playing in the streets. There would then be a candle or torch lit procession to the church for the service.
Mari Lwyd translates as the grey mare and is a Pagan tradition carried out in parts of Wales either around Christmas or in the New Year.
The Mari Lwyd is a horse’s skull, decorated with ribbons and bells, carried around on a pole by a participant hidden in a cloak. Flanked by traditionally-dressed attendants, the Mari Lwyd then goes from house to house. At each house, they try to gain entrance by reciting a series of verses, to which the householder responds with their own verses in a bid to outwit the Mari Lwyd. Once the ‘battle’ is over, the party goes into the house to eat and drink – this brings good luck to the householder – and then moves on to the next house.
The Nos Galan Road Races
In a rather healthier way to spend New Year’s Eve than drinking too much, up to 2000 runners gather in the afternoon in the Welsh Valley’s town of Mountain Ash to commemorate Guto Nyth Brân, who lived in the village of Llwyncelyn in the early 1700s. According to legend, he was such a fast runner that he could run to Pontypridd and back – a distance of seven miles – before his mother’s kettle had boiled.
This tradition was begun by local runner Bernard Baldwin in 1958. It starts with a church service at Llanwynno, where a wreath is laid on Brân’s grave, and a torch is lit. Races are then run in the town. These used to go on until midnight, when the New Year was welcomed in.
Calennig on New Year’s Day
“Dydd calan yw hi heddiw, Rwy’n dyfod ar eich traws I ‘mofyn am y geiniog, Neu grwst, a bara a chaws. O dewch i’r drws yn siriol Heb newid dim o’ch gwedd; Cyn daw dydd calan eto Bydd llawer yn y bedd.”
“Today is the start of the New Year, and I have come to you to ask for coins, or a crust, and bread and cheese. O come to the door cheerfully without changing your appearance; Before the next arrival of the new year many will be dead.”
This rather pessimistic New Year’s greeting is part of the traditional of calennig. Children, dressed in their best clothes, would visit relatives before midday, carrying skewered apples or oranges stuck with fruit and raisins. They would sing or recite rhymes in exchange for to gifts (cakes sweets, money, bread and cheese, for example) for the New Year.
While Christmas may again not be what we expected, we are grateful that we are well, and safe and that we are able to spend the time together, with our two children. This year has been a difficult one for so many people, and the bad news sometimes feels relentless. So I hope you all have peaceful, safe, restful holidays with your loved ones, and that if you can’t be with family or friends, that you find a way to spend the season that brings you joy and contentment.