Welsh Christmas customs

Photograph of holly leaves and berries

Mari Lwyd, calennig, plygain... there are several Welsh Christmas and New Year customs and traditions.

Last updated: 03 November 2009

Plygain - singing from 3-6am on Christmas Day

In the dark hours on the morning of Christmas Day, before the cockerel crowed, men gathered in rural churches to sing. They sang mainly unaccompanied, three or four part harmony carols in a service that went on for three hours or so. That's Plygain.

This is a tradition which still thrives in parts of mid Wales. Watch an archive clip of Plygain in the 1960s.

Taffy - a Christmas Eve custom

Got a sweet tooth? Why not re-live an old Welsh custom this Christmas? Taffy-making.

This is how families whiled away the dark hours of Christmas Eve's night, leading up to the Plygain service. Toffee was boiled in pans on open fires and - this is a nice twist - dollops were dropped into icy cold water.

The taffy curled into all sorts of shapes - like letters. This was a way of divining the initials of the younger, unmarried family members' future loves.

Mrs Beeton's recipe for taffy

Mari Lwyd - the grey mare that brings good luck

Imagine hearing a knock on your door around Christmas and being challenged to a battle of rhyming insults by a man with a scary horse with a skull-head. That's the Mari Lwyd - Grey Mare - a pre-Christian custom that's still acted out in parts of Wales.

Watch a Welsh-language clip about Mari Lwyd.

Make a Mari Lwyd - with or without a horse's skull

Making your own Mari Lwyd could be tricky, as you'll need to get hold of a horse's skull and jaw. However, it may be possible to improvise with polystyrene or cardboard instead.

Stick on false ears, plug big shiny glass marbles into the eye sockets and give the head a mane of ribbons. Stick the head on to a broom handle, hold on to it and wrap a white sheet - just long enough to reach the ground - around yourself so the head sticks out at the top.

Hold on to the broom handle and clack the Mari Llwyd's jaw against the top of the skull as you go from door to door, visiting your friends this Christmas and New Year.

Wassail - before mulled wine and punch, there was this

This is a tradition that went hand-in-hand with Mari Lwyd and other Christmas get-togethers. Just as we drink mulled wine and punch at Christmas and New Year parties nowadays, a Welsh Christmas at the turn of the century involved drinking from the wassail bowl.

These bowls were often elaborate, ornate and many-handled. The bowl was filled with fruit, sugar, spices and topped up with warm beer. As it was passed around, the drinkers would make a wish for a successful year's farming and a bumper crop at harvest time.

Although the wassail bowl has been a tradition in Wales for many years, its origins are not uniquely Welsh. According to reader Sasha Clarskson, "The word derives from the Anglo-Saxon "Waes Hael!" ('wax hale' in slightly more modern language). It means be or grow healthy, and started as a toast at yule in pagan times, becoming the name for the drink that was toasted and then, even later, singing at yule/Christmas hoping to be rewarded by that drink or by other favours."

Calennig - trick or treat, Welsh style

Was trick or treat invented in Wales? Well, for centuries here in Wales, something very similar has been going on. Not at Hallowe'en, but on New Year's Day. Ever heard of calennig?

From dawn until noon on New Year's Day, all around Wales, groups of young boys would go from door to door, carrying three-legged totems, chanting rhymes, splashing people with water and asking for calennig - gifts of small change.

Make your own calennig - on Twelfth Night

Take three short sticks - as long as lollipop sticks - and stick them into the bottom of an apple, as if they were stool legs. Now pepper the apple all round, hedgehog-style, with cloves, almonds, corn ears, etc. Stick a sprig of holly and a candle in the top of the calennig. Come New Year's Day, you'll be ready to play your part in making sure this ancient Welsh tradition doesn't die out.

Hunting the wren

On Twelfth Night in Wales, groups of men would go out Hunting the Wren. The tiny bird would be caged in a wooden box and carried from door to door. Householders would pay for the privilege of peeping at the poor wren in the box.


Addurniadau Nadolig

Arferion y Nadolig

Hanes y canu Plygain, gwneud cyflaith a hela dryw, rhai o hen arferion y Cymry.

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