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Welsh Christmas Customs

Every country has its Christmas customs, and Wales is no exception. In Wales 'y gwyliau' (holidays) were celebrated over a twelve day time period (the twelve days of Christmas). Some of the celebrations were religious and others were secular.

One religious festival was the Protestant ‘plygain’ carol service that took the place of midnight mass celebrated by the Catholics. This was an important service that everyone attended, bringing their own candles with them, as there was no light in the church. Special candles were often made for this service, and some churches would light hundreds of candles. Traditionally the service was held between 3am-6am on Christmas morning when people would arrive at their local church, then sing Christmas carols. As singing is a Welsh tradition, there would be great pride in taking part and singing unaccompanied by musical instruments.

In the past, all parts of North Wales shared a strong carol-singing tradition. Today, this custom continues in Welsh speaking areas of the country where different groups prepare carols, and the singing can last up to two hours. After this religious beginning to the day, the Welsh were allowed to make merry. Games, sports and, of course, drink and food, were all part of the fun.

In order to stay awake for the Christmas morning service, many families would spend Christmas Eve making toffee (taffi), a particularly popular custom in the coal mining areas of south Wales. A toffee evening, especially when others were invited was called a Noson Gyflaith. (This was great fun for birthday parties when I was a child).

Christmas Eve was also the time when the Welsh decorated their houses with traditional holly and mistletoe. A strange custom in several areas of Wales took place with crowds in the streets blowing cow horns, carrying torches and shouting verses.

Welsh Mari Lwyd courtesy Wales Tourist Board The Mari Lwyd horse ritual, seldom seen today, was another custom in which a horse figure was carried door to door by a group of male singers. The group, after singing, would start a contest with the family, making up verses, after which they would be invited in for refreshments. You can see this custom performed at the Museum of Welsh Life’s Christmas Fair.

On New Year’s Day, children went around the village homes, collecting gifts (calennig) just as North American children do today on Halloween, when they trick or treat. The children would wish the family health and wealth for the coming year. In their hands they would carry skewered apples, decorated with evergreens and corn, symbols of their wishes. Now this custom is carried on in a different form, the children just reciting some verses to collect coins.

Welsh Toffee Recipe (a good party activity for all ages)

three pounds brown sugar
half a pound salted butter at room temperature
juice of one lemon
¼ pint boiling water

Use an enamel or steel pan to slowly melt the sugar in boiling water over low heat, stirring continuously. Remove the pan from the heat, then add the lemon juice and the butter. Return to heat and boil for a fifteen minutes without stirring until it reaches hard boil on a candy thermometer or hardens when a drop is put in cold water.
Pour the mixture slowly on to a large, buttered flat dish. Butter your hands and pull the toffee into long strands while still warm until it turns golden yellow. It will harden and then you can cut it into smaller pieces.

Mari Lwyd photo courtesy Wales Tourist Board.

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