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Learning More About: Welsh Festive Traditions

person making Taffy

Nadolig Llawen –  Merry Christmas

What are some Welsh Christmas Traditions?

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.

The custom in many parts of Wales was to attend a very early church service known as “Plygain” (daybreak), between 3am. and 6am. Men gathered in rural churches to sing, mainly unaccompanied, three or four part harmony carols in a service that went on for three hours or so. The simplicity and beauty of this custom is being revived. After the service, a day of feasting and drinking would begin.

Plygain – singing from 3-6am on Christmas Day

In the dark hours on the morning of Christmas Day, 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.

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. It can however still be seen at Llangynwyd near Maesteg every New Years Day.

A horse’s skull with false ears and eyes attached, along with reins and bells, covered with a white sheet and colourfully decorated with ribbons, is carried around on a pole. The Mari Lwyd is carried from door to door and is accompanied by a party of people. At each door, poems are recited in Welsh. Those inside the house reply also in verse refusing to let the Mari Lwyd in until this battle of verse and insults (or pwnco) is won.

Nos Galan

Many countries have a custom for letting in the New Year that involves the letting out of the Old Year and the welcoming in of the New Year, often with gifts for good luck for the coming year. The Scots have the custom of First Footing where at 12 midnight, armed with a bottle of whisky and/or gifts, people visit their neighbours going from house to house, toasting in the New Year, often not returning home until daybreak. n Wales the custom of letting in the New Year was slightly different in that if the first visitor in the New Year was a woman and the male householder opened the door, that was considered bad luck. If the first man to cross the threshold in the New Year was a red haired man, that was also bad luck.
Some other Welsh customs associated with the New Year were: “all existing debts were to be paid”; never lend anything to anyone on New Years Day else you would have bad luck; and the behaviour of an individual on this day was an indication of how they would behave all year!

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