Some Welsh customs

Friday 2 August 2013, 16:09

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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As most people are aware, Wales is a country with a wide range of customs and traditions. Quite apart from the language, these customs are an important part of what makes Wales different, a country with a culture and a history all of its own.

From love spoons and eisteddfodau to the unique wassailing practice of the Mari Lwyd, there are a whole host of fascinating traditions, many of them still alive and kicking even today. And several of them repay closer examination.

Let's start with the ceffyl pren. This ancient, essentially rural practice, consisted of tying an offender – usually, but not always, someone who was guilty of domestic violence - to a ladder and parading him through the village.

It was usually done after a mock trial and the man in question would have been carried backwards through the village on his ladder or pole.

The ceffyl pren, loosely translated as the wooden horse, was the preserve of the men from the community. However, they invariably dressed up in womens clothes and painted their faces black, thus symbolizing a world gone awry.

The custom was a way of establishing social control in a sparsely populated rural environment where there were no policemen or social workers to maintain order or control.

To an extent it was people taking the law into their own hands but it was certainly an effective deterrent. After all, there was no hiding place when the ceffyl pren came to call.

The principles of the ceffyl pren were behind the famous Rebecca Riots, attacks on the turnpike trusts and tollgates of Wales in the 1840s. As part of these riots men dressed as women and blackened their faces, partly for concealment but also partly to make the point that the trusts were an iniquitous system that penalized all honest working men.

Less violent but equally as significant in a rural society was the custom of finding the harvest mare.

The mare was the last tuft of corn cut by a harvester during the reaping – a communal activity where every man in the village helped everyone else.

The harvester who cut and claimed the harvest mare would seize his prize and take it to the house of the farmer or the man who owned the land where the cutting was taking place. He would then be given the seat of honour at the post-harvesting dinner.

The women of the village would throw water at him as he ran to the house but nothing would stop the man claiming his victory.

The last tuft of corn was considered particularly potent and powerful, both for the land and for the individual, hence the urgency to claim it on the field. It is also believed that the corn dollies now found in many tourist shops derive from this old custom.

Hunting the wren was another old Welsh custom that took place at Epiphany on 6 January each year. During the day a wren would be captured and placed in a wooden casket known as the wren house.

When night fell and with the coming of darkness, this casket was then carried from house to house in the village and displayed to the householders in return for money or refreshment.

The men who carried the wren house always groaned as if they were carrying something very heavy in their hands. In truth, of course, the wren has always been the smallest of British birds and weighs almost nothing.

At each door the men carrying the wren house would sing about the wren, calling it the king of all birds. As with the ceffyl pren, the practice of hunting the wren symbolised the turning of the world upside down.

There are so many other fascinating Welsh customs, traditions that deserve further study. They are what help make Welsh social life so significant.

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