Festive Welsh winter traditions

Like many other countries around the world, historically in Wales we have many Christmas and New Year traditions and celebrations, some of which continue to this day. 

Our country has a rich and fascinating range of folk customs, why not introduce and share some of them with your learners. What do they think of them?  Why not take your learners outside and gather materials to make a calennig as pictured?

Y Plygain – Christmas morning

The Welsh tradition of ‘Y Plygain’ is a service held in churches and chapels around Wales on Christmas morning.  Thought to be derived from the Latin pullicanto, to worship at ‘cock crow’ or in Welsh to ‘plygu’, to bend in prayer, these services were traditionally held sometime between 3am and 6am!  To help stay awake and in anticipation of the singing ahead, families would invite friends round for an evening of games, storytelling and toffee making, where the treacle ‘taffy’ (cyflaith) was boiled in pans on an open fire.  Homes would be decorated with the foliage of Christmas - mistletoe and holly - before venturing out in the early hours by torch or candlelight to join the procession to the local church or chapel to attend Plygain.   The only service in the religious calendar to be held at night, like many other festivals of light around the world, the community processions of candlelight through the countryside was a key part of the celebrations.

Dating back to the 13th Century, Plygain would begin with a reading or sermon from the vicar or minister before the announcement that the ‘plygain is open’.  This was the cue for soloists, groups, and choirs to come forward to sing carols unaccompanied, in three or four-part harmony to folk tunes.  Often each person brought his or her candle to help to light the church, with the illumination from the candles adding to the ambience of the service.  They were informal affairs and attendees would walk to the front to sing their carol, with a point of pride that no carol would be sung twice.  The congregation would then move to a local inn for breakfast.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Plygain was one of the services of the Catholic Church, but it was subsequently adopted by the Anglicans, and then later, the Nonconformists.  The tradition of singing Plygain carols to celebrate Christmas has continued consistently in many parts of Wales, with services mostly being held before Christmas during the evening.  If you are interested to hear what a Plygain service sounds like, there are a number than can be found online.

Curo celyn / Holming / Holly beating – St. Stephens Day (Boxing Day)

The day after Christmas Day was celebrated in Wales with the tradition of ‘curo celyn’ or ‘holming’.  On the morning of St. Stephens Day young men and boys would gather branches of prickly holly and roam the village to beat the arms and legs of young women until they drew blood.  In some areas, it was the last person to get out of bed in the household that would receive the beating.  The brutal custom reputedly brought good luck for the coming year.  Luckily for young girls and those that like a lie-in, holming disappeared in the late 19th century.

Hela’r dryw / Hunting the wren – St. Stephens Day (Boxing Day) to Twelfth night 

The hunting of the wren, which usually took place between St. Stephens Day and the Twelfth night, is prominent in both Welsh and Irish history.  It was a custom which was thought to bring good luck and an opportunity to start the new year with a clean slate. ‘Hunting the wren’ involved a party of young men going out to catch a wren, the smallest of all the birds.  Sometimes it would be killed, but sometimes it would be put alive in a little cage adorned with ribbons which would be carried around villages from door-to-door with the group singing songs, praising the wren as the ‘King of Birds’ and asking for gifts of food or money in exchange for seeing the captured wren.  By modern day standards, this custom seems heartless and odd to us, but the use of a bird as a symbol of luck has long held a place in Welsh history. In the Mabinogion (the earliest Welsh stories, widely considered to have been compiled in Middle Welsh in the 11th–14th centuries), the figure Lleu Llaw Gyffes is named after having killed a wren. Thankfully Welsh wildlife now has legal protection and this custom no longer continues in Wales.

Calennig – New Year’s Day

Calennig (New Year gift) was a popular New Year’s custom.  In some parts of Wales, groups of boys would visit houses with evergreen twigs and cups of cold water, using the twigs to splash people with the water before being gifted the Calennig.  Whilst elsewhere, children would go from door to door singing or reciting rhymes in return for a ‘Calennig’ which would be bread and cheese, sweets, or money.  Some children carried oranges or apples on three sticks, decorated with nuts, cloves or evergreen sprigs as a gift for New Year.  These were viewed as a symbol of good luck or as a token for a good harvest in the coming year and were displayed in windows. 

The Fari Lwyd

The Fari Lwyd (Grey Mare) is the name given to a folk custom which involves a horse’s skull being carried from house to house between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night.  The Fari Lwyd is thought to be a pre-Christian tradition and would have false ears, lights or baubles as eyes, a mane made of ribbons, ivy or holly and be draped with a white cloak to hide the person carrying the head.  Accompanied by an ostler, Fari was taken around the village with a song being sung at each house, asking to come in. The occupants of the house would sing back, often denying them entry at first before eventually relenting.  If the Fari and her gang gained entry, they were given cakes and ales and the household was said to have good luck for the year.  The Fari Lwyd then caused some mischief before moving onto the next house. 

Welsh Methodists and other Christian non-conformists criticised the Fari Lwyd in the 19th Century, but the practice continued in some places in South Wales.  Today the Fari Lwyd is making a comeback in communities across Wales with Fari being viewed as bringing an element of fun and mischief over the cold and dark season.

Wassailing - Twelfth night 

Before the advent of mulled wine, Buck’s Fizz or a ‘snowball’, the wassail bowl provided the Christmas tipple of choice.  An ancient tradition, wassailing involved singing door-to-door and offering a drink from the wassailing bowl - an ornate bowl filled with warm beer, sugar, fruits and flavoured with spice.

The word wassail originates from the Anglo-Saxon ‘waes-hael’, meaning ‘be in good health'.  With people reliant on the land for good health, prosperity, and a bountiful harvest, wishes of good health would be offered for both the crops and the community as the wassail bowl was passed around for people to take a turn and drink from it. 

Festive swim

A tradition that has developed over more recent years in Wales is the festive swim.  It’s not for the light-hearted or those nursing a festive hangover as wetsuits are ditched in favour of fancy dress, and swimmers take the plunge into icy waters on Christmas morning, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.  A festive tradition with an icy twist, some partake for the invigorating thrill, others use it as an opportunity to raise money for charity, whilst others choose to stay on dry land and cheer on those braving a dip.  Arguably, for those who transcend the open, cold water and burn off the mince pies, a communal festive swim promotes a sense of camaraderie and offers an exhilarating way to recharge the batteries over the festive period. 

(Photo – Collecting calennig, People's Collection Wales)

Explore more

Newsletter sign up

Sign up to receive monthly updates from Natural Resources Wales