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A Welsh Christmas

Updated on December 4, 2016
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Wales, UK

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Many Christmas traditions celebrated in modern day Wales are shared with the rest of the UK and other parts of the world, decorating with holly and mistletoe, Christmas cake and gift giving to name a few. However, a few are unique to the welsh people and rooted in their history. The welsh language, song and community play a large part of welsh life and Christmas is no exception.

Burning Candle

candles were taken to the plygain service
candles were taken to the plygain service | Source

Plygain Service

The Plygain Christmas Eve service, also known as the daybreak or cock crow service was traditionally an early service that took place between 3 and 6am on Christmas morning. Often held in the early hours of Christmas morning, it was attended by even the most remote parishioners. Each person brought their own candle to light the church and candles were placed in chandeliers, in sockets on the top of posts, tied to pews and in some locations, all around the walls of the building. In many areas tradition dictated that only men would attend the service and sing carols and hymns unaccompanied, although by the 19th century women and children usually attended also. The structure, timing and attendance of the service varied from parish to parish. In some areas the usual morning service would be abbreviated as many looked forward to the singing part of the service. Carols were performed in solos, choruses and various sized groups. Some historians see the development of the plygain Christmas service as an modification of the pre reformation service adapted to meet the protestant practices, as a replacement of the Catholic Christmas midnight mass. It is also worth noting that after the translation of the Bible into Welsh singing services became increasingly popular.

Modern day plygain services still take place, predominantly in the welsh speaking areas bordered by Mallwyd, Lanerfyl, Cefnyblodwel and Llangynog. The service is usually completely run by the carol singers. Without an announcer, various sized parties come forward to sing in welsh in turn, often up to 30 songs being sung.

Plygain Carols

Plygain Facts

Plygain Facts
It is a point of honor not to sing a carol already sung by another group that evening
In Dolgellau the church was also decorated with holly.
In some parishes locals would meet before the service and formed a procession with torches or candles and singing of verses to escort the rector to church.
In Llanfyllin special candles known as canhwyllau plygain were made by local chandlers.
After the service a day of feasting would begin

Mari Lwyd at Chepstow, January 2014

Mari Lwyd horse head on a pole
Mari Lwyd horse head on a pole | Source

The Mari Lwyd - Grey Mare/Holy Mary

Predominantly in South Wales, the practice of Mari Lwyd involved a group of singers who went from door to door carrying a horse figure made from a horse skull. The skull was placed on a pole in a way that the jaw could be opened and closed and draped in a white cloth and decorated with ribbons and flowers.

A party of five or six men or boys called the Mari party dressed in colored ribbons, flowers and a sash carried the horse Mari Lwyd through the streets of the parish stopping at each house singing traditional songs. Beginning at dusk and late into the night, the singing was a type of contest, between the Mari party and the occupants of the house. The contest would go on until one side gave in. Traditionally, if the Mari side lost the contest, they would leave without being permitted in, but to admit them brought good luck so they usually 'won', The group played music and entertained the householders and were given cakes and ale, the visit concluding with a traditional farewell song.

Over time the custom changed, mostly due to the rise in Methodism and the temperance movement. Christmas Carols were sung instead, in some areas English began to be used instead of Welsh and by the 1960s the tradition had almost died out. Today some areas have revived the tradition.

Mari Lwyd Facts
The singing debate or competition was called the pwnco and usually included leg pulling and mocking of each side.
Once admitted into the house, the group would sing, intoducing each member of the group
The practice of Mari Lwyd occured from mid December to the end of January.
The practice has its roots in other pre- chrstian customs.
It was unlucky to refuse the Mari Lwyd
The Mari Lwyd gained a reputation of drunkeness and with the rise of the Chapel and Methodism the tradition began to change.

Noson Gyflaith - Toffee Evening

To fill the time before attending the early morning plygain service many families would get together to make toffee. Toffe making was particularly common in the South Wales coal mining communities and earlier in the 20th century it was also part of the New Year celebrations in parts of North Wales. It was a fun event, including food, merriment, games and toffee making. The ingredients are boiled together then poured over a well-greased stone slab. Participants would cover their hands with butter and 'pull' the toffee while it is still warm. The pulling of toffee took great skill and would be a form of competition to those involved.

Recipe for Making Toffee

3 lb of soft brown sugar
half a pound of salted butter
juice of one lemon
quarter pint of boling water
Using an enamel/steel pan, gradually melt the sugar in the boiling water over low heat.
Stir it continuously with a wooden spoon until all sugar is melted.
Remove saucepan from heat, add the lemon juice and softened butter and stir.
Boil this mixture for a further 15 minutes without stirring.
Test the mixture by dropping a teaspoonful into a cup of cold water. If it hardens at once it is ready.
Pour the mixture slowly not a large flat pre greased dish.
Butter hands and 'pull' the toffee into long golden strands while hot. Cut into smaller pieces.
Recipe from National Museum of Wales website

Verse Recited During the Giving of Calennig in Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire (translated from Welsh)

I left my house today

With my bag and my stick,

And here is my message to you,

Fill my bag with bread and cheese.

The Calenigg - New Year Gift

The giving of gifts to mark the new year is a tradition that has been followed for centuries. When the Romans invaded Britain in the 3rd and 4th centuries they brought customs with them, giving an olive branch as a new years peace gift was one of these customs. The giving of the branch was a way to wish for peace and prosperity or to say sorry for an old argument. The custom evolved in part of Wales so that traditionally on January 1st, groups of young children would travel house to house in the parish spreading good wishes for the new year. They carry skewered apples stuck with corn, evergreen twigs, nuts and raisins. The singing of verses would be rewarded with a few pennies or food. The tradition still survives today in some Welsh speaking areas of Wales. The calenigg would then be displayed at home or given as a gift to family.

How to Make a Calennig


These traditions, unique to Wales can still be found in some parishes today. They can also be found in places such as St Fagans National History Museum in South Wales, where the traditions are re enacted as part of the winter celebrations.

© 2014 Ruthbro


Submit a Comment
  • Ruthbro profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from USA

    Thank you, me too.

  • nanderson500 profile image


    4 years ago from Seattle, WA

    I'm always interested to learn about how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures. Very interesting, had not heard of the Mari Lwyd before.


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