Welsh Festive Traditions
Every country has its own festive traditions and Wales is no exception. Although many of the stranger rituals have died out over the years (thankfully, in some cases), some are still celebrated in certain areas of the country, including Pembrokeshire. Here are some Welsh Christmas and New Year traditions you may not have heard of.
A popular 19th Century traditional carol service, Plygain marked the start of the celebrations on Christmas day. Not for late risers, the ritual would begin in the very small hours of the morning, although many locals stayed awake from Christmas Eve, decorating their houses with holly and mistletoe and making ‘cyflaith’ (toffee). In the small towns of West Wales, parishioners with flaming torches would guide the local rector to the church for the service, which consisted of hours of choral singing by the men of the community. The end of the singing signalled the start of the feasting and celebrations of Christmas. The Diocese of St Davids has seen a resurgence in the tradition in recent years with Plygain services taking place throughout the region (albeit at a more civilised hour)!
The Mari Lwyd
One of the most unusual traditions on the list, the Mari Lwyd or ‘grey mare’ was a pre-Christian custom that took place around Christmas and the New Year. If parading through the streets behind a horse’s skull on a pole is your kind of thing, this is the ritual for you! Draped in a white sheet and decorated with ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd was followed through the streets by a crowd of often rowdy locals who called at all the homes challenging the inhabitants to a battle of insulting rhymes known as ‘pwnco’. As a successful pwnco battle often resulted in the homeowner providing lots of ale, things could get pretty unruly. The tradition died out in many parts of Wales for this reason but has since been resurrected in some areas (without quite as much rowdiness).
Fortunately, this is one Boxing Day tradition that has largely disappeared as it involves hitting people with holly branches! The form it took depended on the area of Wales you lived in. If you were a young girl, you didn’t want to live in the part of the country where local boys would roam the streets looking for girls and young women to hit on the bare arms and legs. If you liked a lie-in, you wouldn’t want to live in the places where the last person to get out of bed was whipped with holly by everyone else. Either way, Boxing Day is much more relaxed without having to worry about ‘holming’.
Hunting the Wren
As the name suggests, Hela'r Dryw or ‘Hunting the Wren’ perhaps isn’t the nicest of Christmas rituals. An ancient Celtic custom, it took place anywhere between Boxing Day and Twelfth Night and featured a hapless wren that had either been captured, or if it was really unlucky, killed. As the King of the Birds, the wren and was said to bring good luck and would be taken from door to door in a box or cage. An offering of food, drink, money (or all three) in return for a look at the bird was sure to bring luck into your home. A lucky tradition for the villagers but often not so lucky for the wren.
In the nearby Gwaun Valley of north Pembrokeshire, locals still celebrate the ‘old’ New Year of Hen Galan. Since the 18th century, most of us have followed the Gregorian calendar, but in the Gwaun Valley, they stuck with the 13th January as the day the New Year begins. It’s a time for village children to go carol singing for a penny or two and for the whole community to celebrate with plenty of good food and drink.
Experience the History of Pembrokeshire and West Wales
History and tradition play a central role in the culture here in Pembrokeshire and it’s something we love to celebrate. With plenty of historic sites and ancient castles to visit and lots of traditional activities and events to enjoy, it’s a great place to discover the past. Even our hotel has its own fascinating history. If you’d like to holiday in our little corner of Wales in 2019, you can use our easy online booking system, drop us an email or get in touch on 01437 720300!