Published: Tuesday 16th Dec 2014
Written by: Ginnie James
What is your favourite Christmas tradition? What makes it feel like Christmas more than anything else for you? Customs do change and evolve down the generations but how about indulging in some festive traditions that were popular in Wales hundreds of years ago and can still be enjoyed today! Why not start off with some good old fashioned wassailing?? None of those dainty glasses of mulled wine; instead grab yourself the biggest bowl possible, fill it with fruit, spice and warm beer and invite all your friends around to celebrate the festive season. Authentic wassail bowls have many handles so they could be passed round and everybody could take a sup and make a wish for the coming year.
The beverage of choice may have changed but I am glad that the tradition of gathering together to make merry at Christmas time hasn’t altered that much! If warm beer with fruit is not your thing, try your hand at making toffee. In the long winter night before Christmas truly began many Welsh families would make the sweet treat in big pans on their range before dropping the hot toffee into iced water which would curl the dollops of toffee into all sorts of interesting shapes. I am sure the sugary luxury would be appreciated if you were heading out in the early hours to the Plygain service.
The traditional church service of Plygain (daybreak) involved the rural communities meeting between 3am and 6am to sing unaccompanied hymns in three or four part harmonies to welcome in Christmas morning. This beautiful tradition has continued to today, although in most places the services are no longer at 3 in the morning! Most churches will hold a carols by candlelight service of simply sung carols interspersed with readings and I believe this is an extension of this charming, simple idea. A parish near me, is holding a Plygain style service in the second week of January as a reflection on the weeks just gone and to bring in the New Year.
It is often easy to see where our modern British traditions today stem from but there are some customs that I for one am glad have not passed the test of time. Boxing day in Wales was once marked by the practice of young males beating the arms or legs of young females, or the last person out of bed, with holly until they made them bleed. In all areas of Wales this seemed to have died out before the end of the C19th which can only be a good thing! One New Year tradition however that little boys might be interested in resurrecting was that of Calennig (meaning small gift).
On New Year’s day the boys of the village, carrying evergreen twigs and a cup of water from the well, would visit all the houses and splash the residents in return for a few coins. The water splashing evolved into verse recitation but it was known for this to still be going on in some areas after World War II. Personally I love a good nativity service and if I get to sing some of my favourite carols all the better! O little town of Bethlehem…..