Decorating the house with mistletoe, in particular, is said to derive directly from its usage among the Celtic Druids of Wales, who appear to have ascribed certain magical properties to the plant. Some say that mistletoe was considered by the Druids to be an especially useful plant in childbirth, hence its survival as an important symbol in the celebration of the birth of Christ. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is also associated with the Druids and could very well have originated with some manner of fertility ritual. As in many age-old practices, the original symbolism of the mistletoe has been forgotten, and the custom rather than its definition has become the tradition.
Today a sprig of live mistletoe graces Welsh homes during the Christmas holidays as a symbol of good luck and prosperity. Some leave the mistletoe in place until the following year, replacing it with a fresh sprig, while feeding the old one to the fire. The golden hue it acquires while drying has given mistletoe its poetic alias as "the golden bough."
Rising very early on Christmas Day, or sometimes staying up all night, Welsh parishioners would attend an unusual carol singing service called a plygain. The time varied from place to place, between 3:00 am and 6:00 am on Christmas morning, and it is often celebrated as a sunrise service today. Sometimes a procession of torches lit the way, and it was common for each person to bring a candle to illuminate the church; in some areas the decoration of these candles became cause for competition between the ladies who made them. Church ablaze with light, the singing would commence with as many as fifteen to thirty carols, some of them twelve verses long, all memorized and sung in haunting, four-part a cappella. Set to the melodies of popular, old airs, the words to these plygain carols were precisely composed in traditional Welsh meters, and local poets would often pen lengthy new lyrics on traditional themes in anticipation of the season. These carols were highly prized, and among some families the tradition survives mainly because of the jealous stewardship.
Several traditions in Wales associated with the New Year, and in particular Twelfth Night, share similar, recurring themes. Once related to the crop festivals of an earlier age, they became no more than the festive manifestations of a shared community. Local variations were common, but three main elements dictated their practice: wassailing, the wren customs and the Mari Lwyd. All three share the practice of singing verses in exchange for the hospitality. The accompanying ceremony, costumes, and props would depend upon the locale and the tradition. The tradition originated with a pre-Christian practice initiating the Spring, with whom it is commonly associated is in Wales, in addition to a hud bowl, some members would carry an object known as a perllan, which incorporated both apples and the wren. The perllan, which means "orchard" in Welsh, consisted of a small board, marked at the center by a circle and rigs of wood affixed toward each of the four angels. An apple was secured at each corner, and a miniature bird in a tree graced the center of the circle. Elaborate Welsh singing bowls also echoed this perllan theme. The custom of Hela'r Dryw, (hunting the wren), the Druids holy bird and its corresponding procession, is another ancient tradition, after procuring a wren, or sparrow if a wren could not be found, the party would place it in a beribboned wren-house or decorated bier, which was then carried by two or three bearers in the procession. Special verses in honor of this "ruler of all birds" as it was often referred to, were sung at stops along the way to plug the feathers off to home steads to bring protection against the Winter harshness and to throw out the old acumilated evil left from the year before.
The strongest of the Twelfth Night traditions to survive in Wales is that of the Mari Lwyd. There, where poetry had been in its golden age and is still a highly revered national art form, this occasion for singing verses realized itself in a poetic competition known as penillion. At each stop, whether house or drinking establishment, a battle of wits would ensue, as revelers and landlords engaged in poetic combat. Cynghanedd Traditional and impromptu verses were traded by both sides until one group has been stymied. If the Mari Lwyd party were clever enough, they would gain entry to the house, where, after much singing, dancing, and general "horsing around," they would receive food and drink. Afterwards a special verse of farewell would be sung before the procession moved on. Some landlords were actually known to hire local poets in an attempt to bar the group from entering, but whether to save on ale or spice up the competition is a matter of conjecture.
Welsh Culture & Traditions Y Nadolig (Christmas) In many parts of Wales up until quite recently, it was the custom to get up very early on Christmas morning to attend the Church service known as Plygain (Daybreak) held between 3 and 6 a.m. To pass the time during the long overnight wait on Christmas Eve, young people would make treacle toffee and decorate their houses with freshly gathered mistletoe and holly. It is known that for many centuries before the celebration of Christ's birth, country people brought green plants indoors in the depths of winter, especially evergreens, which are seen as symbols of the return of spring. The mistletoe was considered both as a magical plant and a powerful protector of the home from evil. The holly, a symbol of eternal life, was also prominently displayed, along with the ivy, rosemary and bay leaves. All too, had pleasant scents to disguise the many foul odors that had built up during the long months when doors and windows were shut tight against the winter cold. Dancing and singing to the harp under their festoons of greenery, many people spent an enjoyable Christmas Eve with their neighbors until the more serious time arrived to go to church. There, the churches were ablaze with light, provided by as many as several hundred special Plygain candles brought by the parishioners in a recreation of the ancient festival of light. The Plygain itself was often a short form of morning service in which carols were sung by visiting soloists and groups of singers, but in some churches, as many as 15 carols were sung, and services may have lasted until 8 or 9 in the morning.
The custom managed to survive in many country areas, and because of its simplicity and beauty is being revived in many others. The Plygain service sometimes came to an end when groups of men under the influence of drink, after a night spent merry-making, came to the church and created disorder. Often, however, a day of feasting began the end of the service, the principal dish consisting of toasted bread and cheese (the traditional "Welsh Rabbit"), washed down with prodigious quantities of ale. For those who could afford it, goose was the main course.on the Christmas menu Gwyl San Steffan (St. Stephen's Day, Boxing Day: Dec. 26th) As in most of the rest of the Britian, the day after Christmas Day was always most significant in the day-to-day events of Wales. Some activities that took place on this day seem peculiarly Welsh, including that of "holly-beating" or "holming." In this, it was customary for young men and boys to slash the unprotected arms of female domestic servants with holly branches until they bled. In some areas it was the legs that were beaten. In others, it was the custom for the last person to get out of bed in the morning to be beaten with sprigs of holly and made to carry out all the commands of his family.
On many farms, horses and other animals were bled in a custom that was thought to be good for the animals' health, even increasing their stamina! Luckily for the livestock, and for the young women of the neighborhood who earned their keep as domestics, not to mention those who stayed in bed of a morning, these customs died out before the end of the 19th century (though there are many, I'm sure, who would welcome their return). Nos Galan (New Year's Eve) The activities of the Christmas season came to a climax at the New Year. It has been suggested that the detaching of one's self from the events of the immediate past and at the beginning of a new future gave the celebration special significance. One custom associated with the end of the Christmas season, in Gwent and Glamorgan a tradition only performed in the old Silurian lands?, is that of the Mari Lwyd. This consists of a horse's skull with false ears and eyes attached, along with reins and bells, covered with a white sheet and decorated with coloured strips of cloth or bright ribbons and carried around on a pole. The horse's jaw is operated to open and close usually by a young, agile man, disguised under the sheet, who carries the Mari Lwyd from door to door accompanied by his companions, Chieftains, the Ossla, the Cadi, and the black faced twins and various others, all dressed in motley and faces blackened. At the house doors, verses are recited by the team as they beg for admittance. Those inside the house reply, also in verse, refusing entry until the visitors inevitably win the impromptu contest (they usually have prepared a whole list of impromptu verses well in advance). Once inside the house, the Mari chases the young ladies, one person plays the fiddle, Judy pretends to sweep the hearth, Punch engages in all kinds of mischief and so on until it is time for food and drink (the wassail) to be offered to end the nonsense. After feasting, the party goes on to the next house and the verse contest begins anew, continuing in this manner throughout the day.
Good news concerning this ancient custom is that it is being revived in many areas where it had formerly died out, especially by students at the University of Wales, whose merry making in the streets of Aberystwyth is carried on entirely through the medium of the Welsh language. At the New Year, the following Welsh customs were also observed, many of them until quite recently. All existing debts were to be paid. If not, then the debtor would remain in debt throughout the whole year. It was also considered very unlucky to lend anything on New Year's Day, even a candle. How one behaved on this special day was an indication of how he would behave throughout the coming year. Fore example, if a man rose early on January 1st, his early rising was ensured the rest of the year. The custom of letting in meant that good or bad luck was brought to the household by the first visitor of the New Year. In some areas, it was unlucky for a man to see a woman first; in others, it was unlucky for a woman to see a man first. Some people believed that it was unlucky to see a red-haired man first. In my own youth in Clwyd, having been blessed with red hair, I was never allowed into anyone's home on this day, until a dark person had first crossed the threshold. If a woman was bold enough to be the first person to enter a neighbor's house, then there had to follow a parade of little boys throughout each room to break the witch's spell!
The most popular New Year's custom was one that was carried out in all parts of Wales: the Calennig (small gift). Very early on the morning of January 1st, groups of young boys would visit all the houses in the village carrying an evergreen twig and a cup of cold water drawn from the local well. The boys would then use the twigs to sprinkle the faces of everyone they met. In return, they would receive the Calennig, usually in the form of copper coins. Even the doorways of some houses (when the occupants were still asleep or away) were sprinkled, and all the while a short verse was sung or chanted that celebrated the letting in of the New Year. The custom continued from dawn until noon, (after which it was considered very unlucky indeed), and in certain areas the boy carried apples or oranges into which sprigs of holly or corn were inserted. These offerings later became very fancy, with raisins, hazel nuts, or colored ribbons all helping to decorate the fruit. The custom, in various forms, survived in some areas well after World War II, at least the chanting of a small verse or two in exchange for small coins. Twelfth Night (the evening of Jan. 5th) Twelfth Night was celebrated as the end of Christmastide. The decorations, including holly and mistletoe, were taken down, the burned out nadolig Log was removed from the fireplace, and its ashes stored temporarily. These were then buried along with the seeds planted in the ensuing spring to ensure a good harvest.
Each of the twelve days after Christmas was considered, in the countryside at least, to represent the corresponding months of the year, and the weather on these days was carefully observed and noted as a guide as to what could be expected for the rest of the year.
Nos Galan (New Year's Eve) The activities of the Christmas season came to a climax at the New Year. It has been suggested that the detaching of one's self from the events of the immediate past and at the beginning of a new future gave the celebration special significance. The old teachings say that it is the 12 days of the midwinter when a log would burn for 12 days if it went out then it would be bad for farms and livestock. The tradition goes right back to the Ancient times of the bronze age, and early Iron it is told it is from the Welsh triads. It is said that the Mary Lwyd the Grey Mare is Goddess Rhiannon the Welsh horse Goddess, that comes to cause mischief so that it will not befall on the participants of the ritual, so it does bring fertility to crops families and livestock and good fortune. In Wales it is unlucky to call a horse white, it usually said to be a grey horse, but of course Grey in Wales denotes magical thing.
One custom associated with the Christmas season, in Gwent and Glamorgan a tradition only performed in the old Silurian lands, is that of the Mari Lwyd. This consists of a horse's skull with false ears and eyes attached, along with reins and bells, covered with a white sheet and decorated with coloured strips of cloth or bright ribbons and carried around on a pole. The horse's jaw is operated to open and close usually by a young, agile man, disguised under the sheet, who carries the Mari Lwyd from door to door accompanied by his companions, Chieftains, the nature elemental, the Cadi, and the black faced twins and various others, all dressed in motley and faces blackened. At the house doors, verses are recited by the team as they beg for admittance this sing is called the punc. Those inside the house reply, also in verse, refusing entry until the visitors inevitably win the impromptu contest (they usually have prepared a whole list of impromptu verses well in advance) is called the punco. Once inside the house, the Mari chases the young ladies, one person plays the fiddle, the Cadi pretends to sweep the hearth, the chieftain engages in all kinds of mischief and so on until it is time for food and drink to be offered to end the nonsense. After feasting, the party goes on to the next house and the verse contest begins anew, continuing in this manner throughout the day. At the same time the Y Fari Lwyd brings good luck for the coming year and takes old evils out of the house that has been its victim!