Y Gwyliau - The Midwinter Holiday in Wales
“Early in the eighteenth century, Wales was almost entirely rural. It was a country on the fringe of Europe without cities or a capital and with a small population – more people lived in London than in the whole of Wales – which was largely dependent on agriculture and ruled by the seasons.”
This means certain seasonal traditions could linger on in Wales while other parts of Britain had moved on, making Wales a window into the past.
Due to the heavily rural nature of Welsh life, most of the festivities still took place in the homes that dotted the countryside. Even the traditional agricultural lifestyle, though it consisted of hard work, still contrived to bring the folk together, and then traditional folk customs, tales, and songs could be shared even while hard at work sheering sheep, reaping harvest, or preparing food stuffs.
That time of year that we refer to as “the Christmas Season” today was called “Y Gwyliau” in Welsh, meaning simply “The Holidays.” This encompassed about three weeks of rest and revelry where very little farm work was done.
It was common for farmhouses to have a “table room,” rwˆ m ford in Welsh, where farm hands would be welcomed to drink beer and feast as they roamed from farm to farm.
Farmhands placed their ploughs under the tables as they feasted, and interestingly, they appear to have given an offering of beer to their ploughs before they had a sip themselves.
This is supposed to be in thanks of the ploughs’ service through the year and recognition that though they are still for now, they will be needed again soon.
Trick or Treat at Christmas?
What most people do not realize is that this custom was not relegated only to Halloween. In the December, 2013 issue of Celtic Guide (which you can find on CelticGuide.com) I wrote an article called “The Hidden History of Christmas Carols” which discusses the similarity between Christmas caroling and trick or treating.
Traditionally, Christmas carolers used to ask for food in return for their carols. Just as trick-or-treaters threaten a “trick” if you don’t give them a treat, Christmas carolers historically were quite a quite rowdy, even drunken, lot.
This custom was likely very widespread throughout Europe, a Romanian version is discussed in the article on Christmas carols.
Interestingly, this door to door custom is found very strongly in Wales. While Halloween trick-or-treat is attributed to Scots-Irish tradition, the door to door custom has been recorded in Wales at both Christmas and Candlemas.
In addition to the door to door custom occurring at holidays other than Halloween, it is also noted that caroling occurred at holidays other than Christmas. While this likely happened throughout Britain, and indeed Europe, it was recorded specifically in Wales.
Owen shares one account of Welsh Candlemas caroling wherein the revelers go around town and sing outside of homes. This sounds innocent enough… at first. What ensues is the carolers sing bawdy songs about the Virgin Mary (no wonder the Church considering caroling sacrilegious!) and hurl insults at the home-owners! The homeowners are then obliged to return the insults to the carolers. Whichever group out-wits the other in verse would be declared the winner. If the revelers won, they must be allowed inside and given food and beverage (Owen pp242-243).
And, interestingly, Owen mentions that wassailing was done at Halloween as well as Christmas and Candlemas and other holidays (p247). (Carolyn Emerick, “The Hidden History of Christmas Carols,” 2013).
Jacqueline Simpson discusses Thomassing in her book “The Folklore of the Welsh Border.” The practice was called “Thomassing” because it occurred on St. Thomas’ Day, the 21st of December.
The poor women of the area would go door to door carrying a large sack, or some other receptacle, and ask for food stables such as grains, cheese, etc. The practice was also called “gooding” or “corning.” Those names, I would guess, would have to do with seeking the good will of neighbors to share some corn, which in Britain means grain.
Mari Lwyd –Wassailing with a Hobby Horse
Mari Lwyd is universally considered to have pre-Christian roots, and was adapted to the Christian holiday season.
The word means “Grey Mare” for its association with horses. It was once widespread through Wales but has mainly been seen in recent history in Llangynwyd near Maesteg (although it is being revived elsewhere).
On New Year’s Day another door to door procession occurs, wherein a horse’s skull is propped up on a pole, decorated with streaming ribbons, and draped with a white cloth. The skull is decorated with false eyes and ears.
This is remarkably similar to Wassailing and Trick or Treating as discussed above and in more detail in “The Hidden History of Christmas Carols.”
Plygain – Watching the Dawn
The custom of Plygain is mentioned in both Jacqueline Simpson’s book, and in Wirt Sikes’ “British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions.”
Sikes says that it was popular in Wales to gather at church at three in the morning. Everyone would hold small green candles designed specifically for this purpose. Whereas Simpson says that they gathered at 5 or 6am.
Sometimes the meetings occurred at farms or in cottages. But, in any event, the people gathered to sing carols as the dawn arose in the sky.
There are many old attempts to explain this custom. But, it seems tied into the recognition of the importance of the Winter Solstice as a turning point in the year, in my opinion.
Music and Song
When the peasantry gathered for seasonal work, they often sang together.
When they went door to door, whether carrying a decorated horse’s head or to beg for grain, song was often a present element.
And, when the folk gathered early on Christmas morning to watch the sun rise, they sang Christmas carols together.
The Wassail customs found in England had their own counterparts in Wales, to be sure.
At Yuletide, when the Wassail bowl is passed round, people of all European nations imbibe of the jolly nectars of the season.
So, I should like to leave you with a rhyme that I found while researching this article:
“When an Englishman is drunk he is belligerent;
when a Frenchman is drunk he is amorous;
when an Italian is drunk he is loquacious;
when a Scotchman is drunk he is argumentative;
when a German is drunk he is sleepy;
when an American is drunk he brags;
and when a Welshman is drunk he sings.”
Most of Britain is a tapestry woven by these shared influences. In parts of the British Isles, Danish and Norse heritage is thrown into the mix, peppered by regional elements that give distinct local flavor.
So whether you carry Welsh ancestry in your family or not, I hope you can find some inspiration for keeping old European folk traditions alive in your household this holiday.
About the author:
- Emerick, Carolyn. "The Hidden History of Christmas Carols." Celtic Guide (2013): 15-19.
- Johnson, Ben. Welsh Christmas Traditions. n.d. <http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofWales/Welsh-Christmas-Traditions/>.
- Kinney, Phillys. Welsh Traditional Music. Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 2011.
- Owen, Trefor M. "The Celebration of Candlemas in Wales." Folklore 84.3 (1973): 238–251.
- Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. London: William Clowes and Sons, 1880.
- Simpson, Jacqueline. The Folklore of the Welsh Border. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1976.