Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in Wales

And now for something completely different, to quote the famous line from the Monty Python TV show. 

The land of my birth is Wales, which has its own language and traditions, different from those of the rest of the United Kingdom. The Welsh language, a Celtic language, is still spoken, though by a minority, and a few of the ancient traditions are kept alive or have a enjoyed a revival in recent years. Poetry and music is the essence of Welsh culture and very evident in Welsh Christmas and New Year’s traditions.

The main ancient Welsh Christmas customs include plygain. This was a carol singing event that took place very early on Christmas morning. Traditionally, the carols were sung unaccompanied in three or four-part harmony by groups of men. Often they were composed for the occasion and took the name of the singers’ family or family farm. The singing could go on for two or three hours in rural churches ablaze with the lights of highly decorated candles. The women stayed at home, decorating their houses with mistletoe and holly, cooking and making toffee for the feast and festivities that would follow the plygain. In the nineteenth century there are accounts of women joining their men folk in the plygain. And plygains held today of course include women.
Boys from Trawsfynydd collecting holly and mistletoe to sell
by Geoff Charles (1959; National Library of Wales collection)

Plygain Carol Singing on Christmas Morning

Plygain Carols—Videos

Plygain Carol Carol y Swper

Plygain Carol played on Welsh Bagpipes

Toffee Making

Calennig by Bill Rogers
Another ancient custom is the calennig, meaning “first day of the month.” This custom mainly took place on New Year’s Eve, when groups of boys visited their neighbors, sang songs, and offered a decorated good-luck apple in exchange for coins or little cakes. The custom is said to date back to Roman Britain in the fourth century AD when neighbors offered each other olive branches as peace offerings at the beginning of a new year.

For more information on the calennig and other customs see:
Two maris by Paul Seligman
The custome of the mari lwyd (grey mare) was once widely practiced and has been revived in a few places today. A group of men carrying a horse’s skull covered in a sheet, decked out in ribbons, would go from house to house calling on members of the household to answer a challenge in verse. If they couldn’t come up with a witty answer, the mari lwyd blessed the household and went away or entered the house, where they entertained the family in exchange for food and drink. Some say the reason the custom died out is because having a group of rambunctious drinkers cavorting around the house late at night was probably not a welcome experience for many families.

Welsh Christmas and New Year’s Traditions

BBC’s Wales Christmas page

No account of a Welsh Christmas would be complete without Dylan Thomas’s immortal A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the Welsh poet’s lyrical and nostalgic remembrances of his own childhood Christmases.

Dylan Thomas reads A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Tom Jones Reads A Child’s Christmas in Wales with the Treorchy Male Choir

Text of A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Cad Valley across Tal y Llyn by Jez B

And another lyrical view of a rural 
Welsh Christmas, this time in Corris, 
near Snowdonia and Lake Tal y Llyn: A Welsh Christmas Fairy Story on YouTube at


  1. Thanks for sharing these traditions. My father was born in Pontycymmer, South Wales and used to talk about Christmas there when he was a boy, but it is always nice to hear new things.

  2. We hope to travel to Wales sometime. Thanks for sharing.