A Magical and Mysterious Welsh Christmas

Researched and written by Jane Blank, author of ‘The Shadow of Nanteos‘ and ‘Nanteos: The Dipping Pool‘, the below was given as a live session with reading from the Nanteos Novel series and discusses just some of Wales’ Christmas traditions.

Croeso i Geredigion!  For ten years I’ve been researching the mysterious world of Georgian Cardiganshire. Known as ‘The Wild West of Wales,’ the Cambrian Mountains are even now called by Iolo Williams ‘The last Welsh Wilderness’.  My two novels, set in the haunting mansion of Nanteos, (now a country house hotel) explore a world in which ancient folk customs were celebrated alongside the traditions of the established church. Y Gwyliau went on for at least three weeks and in some cases the festivities lasted until Candlemas.

There was a huge difference between how wealthy and poor people celebrated the season. The Powells of Plas Nanteos  entertained at home. The farms, kitchen gardens, mills, brew and bake houses on the estate furnished them with everything they needed. The mansion was well lit with wax candles, the light magnified by burnished metal sconces. Ample fuel from the great estate’s woodland made even the largest of rooms inviting. Guests could be accommodated overnight and, as recently as the 1950s, rode their horses over from neighbouring gentry houses on Christmas Night ready for the Boxing Day fox hunt. Though hunting played a pleasurable part in the gentry’s festivities, theirs was mostly an indoor experience.

In contrast, the poor celebrated largely outside. Out of necessity, they got together through the great wassailing tradition – cramped, dark, damp, their homes could not accommodate guests and they took their fun out into the dark. Holding flaming torches, bands of revellers went from homestead to homestead, tavern to tavern, singing, chanting ritual verse, cross-dressing or masked.  Carrying props and accompanied by instruments, y werin bobl fought back together against the darkness and want of a Welsh winter. As at Calan Mai and Calan Gaeaf, they gathered outside to travel from neighbour to neighbour where they would be offered food and drink in exchange for music, song, poetry and blessings for good fortune in the year ahead. Farm work was suspended during the festival period, in some cases the plough being brought into the house, lodged under the table and given drinks of hot ale.

At Y Nadolig, both squire and worker would attend the Plygain service in the local church,  rising very early or sometimes staying up all night making cyflaith ( treacle toffee), dancing, singing and playing games. Early on Christmas morning there was a torch procession to the church, people often bringing their own candles. The service lasted for hours, with a short sermon and carols old and new. I find it touching how humble the special post plygain breakfast was, just hot ale, toasted bread and cheese or brwes, (oatcake seeped in broth, hot milk and water), strong ales, cakes and cold meats, goose being kept for the Christmas dinner. As well as neighbourly visits, Christmas Day was spent in squirrel hunting and sports.

St Stephen’s Day was often known as ‘holming day’. The saint had been stoned to death and men and boys took delight in beating women and girls with holly on their bare arms until blood was drawn. Farm animals were traditionally bled on this day. It was considered to be good for them and, like their owners, they were not working over this period. Some individuals also ‘holmed’ themselves until blood came.

Y Blwyddyn Newydd was even more important than Y Nadolig in Georgian Wales. Like the other major spirit nights I explore in my novels, divination and the interpretation of omens marked the period around the year’s turning, with ritual food, drink, ceremony and verse employed to foresee (and in some cases even affect), events over the future year.  

Football was played on New Year’s Day too. One account describes Y Bel Du, the two goals being the churches of Llandysul and Llanwenog, which are 8 miles apart! The ‘game’ started early in the morning with people on foot and on horseback. By nightfall the lads were drunk.  Many were injured, some even killed. Most of these violent pursuits, common in the Eighteenth Century, were discouraged by early Methodists and banned in later centuries. 

Similar to All Hallows Eve, Calennig wascollected on New Year’s Eve. In living memory, carols and blessings were taken from house to house in exchange for gifts of food and money. Two of the most colourful wassailing practices involved the Mari Lwyd and the wren box. The ‘Grey Mary’ was a horse’s skull, dressed in bells and ribbons and attended by an ostler with a whip and ‘clowns’ in fancy dress, some dressed as women. Accompanied by a crowd of musicians and singers they visited farms and taverns, ‘jousting’ with the inhabitants in verse until they were let in. Then the bawdy Mari would lunge at and kiss the women, lifting their skirts whilst the clowns created havoc. We still do it!

As strange but perhaps lesser known tradition was the perllan in which a live or stuffed wren was imprisoned in a special box and taken from house to house. Again it was usually adult men who performed this ritual and there were elaborate set verses to accompany the tour. If the welcome was inadequate this verse was uttered:

Gwynt ffralwm ddelo’n hwthwm,

I ddroi’r ty a’i wyneb fyny.

‘May a raging wind come suddenly to turn the house upside down.’ Why do curses always sound better in Welsh?

Twelfth Night, the last major event of the season, was perhaps influenced by the Roman Saturnalia festival, in which master and servant socialised, swapping roles for one night only. A special twelve handled wassail bowl was used for this celebration. Filled with cakes, apples, sugar and hot spiced beer it was passed around the company. Hidden inside was a pea and bean, the finders being queen and king for the night. What an opportunity for an author!

I wish you and your family Iechyd Da, Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi gyd!

The Shadow of Nanteos (£8.99, Y Lolfa) and Nanteos: The Dipping Pool (£9.99, Y Lolfa)

written by Jane Blank, are available now.

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