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Wales, a country of festivals

Phil Carradice

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When this year’s Six Nations Championship kicks off in February it is the start of one of the most important celebrations in the Welsh calendar – a rugby tournament like no other and one that is celebrated with almost fanatical zeal the length and breadth of the country.

Clearly, the Six Nations is not just a Welsh celebration but it is one in which the Welsh play a significant part. The Championship is something that is eagerly anticipated by every red-shirted rugby follower – and by those from the other competing nations as well.

There are many other Welsh celebrations, both ancient and modern, that contribute to the make up of our country. Some are well-known; others are more obscure; some last just for a day, others – like the Six Nations tournament – go on for several weeks. Whatever their format they are all part of the delicate fabric of the Welsh social structure.

International visitors to Llangollen in 2014. Image from 'Llangollen 2014', BBC Two Wales

Festivals or celebrations were an important part of life in ancient Wales. Quite apart from their religious or pagan connotations, they lightened an otherwise dark and often depressing year. As such they were looked forward to by everyone in the community.

There were many such festivals in the days before the Normans came. Calan Gaeaf was held to mark the start of winter. It was there to celebrate and mark the end of bright summer days which, hopefully, had produced a fine harvest. Ahead lay the beginning of a dull, cold and uncertain winter period.

In contrast, Calan Awst was a joyous Midsummer celebration where everyone in the village or town could let their hair down. Calan Mai was a similar festival held on or around May Day, not unlike the old pagan festival of Beltane. It was a time to acknowledge that winter had passed and the fruitful days of summer lay ahead.

Calennig marked the Welsh New Year celebrations and was the name given to the tiny gifts or coins that were presented to children when they knocked the door and sang on New Year’s Day. There was a dark side to the custom as, if the door was not opened when knocked, children would often add another verse to their song, wishing the people within an evil year and a household of smoke.

The old tradition of parading the Mari Lwyd has now been revived in many parts of Wales. The Mari Lwyd, a horse’s skull shrouded in white robes, was taken around the streets, knocking on doors and demanding to be let in to celebrate the New Year. Now regarded as a happy and joyous event, the origins of the tradition are pagan and are related to fear of the dark winter and the forces of evil.

Recently given a fresh leaf of life, St Dwynwen’s Day is celebrated on 25 January each year as the Welsh equivalent of St Valentine’s Day. The legendary figure of Dwynwen was thwarted in love, dedicated herself to religion and retired to the island of Llanddwyn off Anglesey. A well on the island is said to contain her sacred fish – their movement in the water supposedly predicts the fortunes of lovers who present themselves at the well. These days more and more people are sending cards to lovers and would-be lovers on St Dwynwen’s Day, a new/old Welsh festival that looks forward to a time of happiness.

The premier and most famous of all Welsh festivals is, of course, the National Eisteddfod. The original Eisteddfod was held at Cardigan Castle over the Christmas period of 1176 when the Lord Rhys invited musicians and poets to the castle to compete for various prizes. Such bardic tournaments continued to be held over the next four hundred years but the practice died out after the Acts of Union in the 16th century as Welsh noblemen turned their backs on Welsh culture.

Bards at the National Eisteddfod in 1965. Image: BBC

The festival remained dormant until the Gorsedd of Bards held a ceremony at the Ivy Bush Hotel in Carmarthen in 1819, marching in full regalia through the town. The first modern national Eisteddfod was held at Aberdare in 1860. Since then it has gone from strength, being held in August every year in north and south Wales alternately.

These days there are so many more festivals for the people of Wales – and visitors – to look forward to expectantly. It seems that the British have become a nation of festival goers and Wales, with its unique cultural heritage is ideally placed to offer both spectacle and involvement.

Baton bearer at the Urdd Eisteddfod, May 2014. Image: BBC

The Urdd Eisteddfod is now the largest cultural Youth Festival in Europe. Held at the end of May each year, the festival is a series of competitions in things like dance, singing, poetry as well as science, art and craft. The Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod is world-renowned, a vibrant week of colour and excitement as singers and musicians from across the world descend on the tiny north Wales town of Llangollen to compete and perform.

There are so many more. From the Hay and Dinefwr Literary Festivals to Brecon Jazz and the Royal Welsh Show, the events are self-explanatory and cater for all tastes. Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival and the Big Cheese in Caerphilly are just two more modern festivals that attract people to Wales.

The World Bog Snorkelling Championships at Llanwrtyd Wells and the Green Man music festival in Glan Usk Park are two of the more unusual events held each year and are inevitably attended by thousands of spectators.

Whatever your interests there is more than likely to be a festival in Wales which caters for exactly that niche market. The Welsh love of festivals is certainly far from dead.

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