The idea that Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ was actually an effort to supplant the older pagan traditions is perhaps a little unfair. The birth of Christ, while obviously important, was not considered to be so important as to warrant a festival. It was barely recognised by Christians for 300 years, the first record of it being in around AD 336 in Rome. But as it grew in importance, so did the need to assign to it a date of celebration.
Firstly, however, it is perhaps helpful to appreciate the thinking behind the change from the older pagan beliefs to the new Christian ethos. There was certainly a concerted effort to convert the pagan peoples, since the teaching of Christ specifically calls for a witnessing mission, but the evidence of early efforts to bring Christianity to the heathen rarely hints at the violence that came in latter missions. There was a curiosity of ancient traditions, an apparent effort to bring the older traditions into the new faith, not unlike the work of occupying Romans whose gods and goddesses seemed to be often merged with the deities of the people they conquered.
The Bible tells us nothing as to when Jesus was born, and so the date of His birth seems to have been judged by the traditional date of the Annunciation, March 25th, when Mary was informed that she would give birth to the Messiah. Nine months later, of course, takes us to December 25th. Perhaps coincidentally, December 25th is a time of the year when many traditional pagan traditions are celebrated, including the Winter Solstice and the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. As a consequence, the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth has absorbed and incorporated many of the associated pagan traditions, such as the importance of holly and mistletoe, Christmas trees and decorations, even the yule log, which has pre-Christian, Scandinavian associations. Christmas became a time when evil spirits were banished. In fact, many of the traditions we associate with Christmas actually relate to Midwinter, a period of time in which people look forward to the new year, the rebirth of the sun and thus the land.
The Christmas traditions discussed below are not only relevant to North East Wales, but can be found throughout Wales and the English border. Many seem entirely alien to a Christian perspective, since it was some considerable time before Christmas Day became as important as Calan Gaeaf or Calan Ionwar. Many of these traditions cling on in isolated communities, or have undergone attempts to revive them, perhaps in an effort to bring back a lost community cohesiveness. All are fascinating.
The tradition of Hel Calennig was the custom of collecting calennig, a small gift from homes in a community on the morning of New Year’s Day It was often collected by groups of children who would go from home to home, wishing health and wealth on families in return for spare coins or gifts of food. The children would often carry apples on a stick, dressed with corn and evergreen and sing a selection of verse.
In Denbighshire, the tradition was considered acceptable only for the poor of a district, and generally frowned upon, although it continued within families. As time went on, it suffered for its association with begging and slowly died, along with many other traditions which involved the collecting of money.
On Gwyl San Steffan, St Stephen’s Day (26th December ~ Boxing Day), the disturbing practice of Holming, or Holly-Beating often took place. This was the custom of young boys beating the unclothed arms or legs of girls with switches of holly branches until they bled. In some areas, the target would be the last person to rise in the morning. It is perhaps unsurprising that this tradition died out well before the end of the 19th century. Indeed, how it lasted as long as it did is the great surprise.
Hunting the Wren ~ Hela’r Dryw
The tradition of hunting the wren has its origins in distant custom, certainly pre-Christian. It was believed that the wren was a sacred bird, the king of birds in fact, sacred to the druids, who used it for the purpose of augury. The practice of ‘Burying the Wren’ was in effect a tradition of mourning the sun and celebrating its ‘rebirth’ after the long night of 21st December, since the Wren was a symbol of the past year. Wrens do seem to play a sizeable part in the mythology of Celtic tradition, and their influence can be seen in much folklore. Wren feathers were given to sailors, for example, since it was believed they brought good luck and protection at sea, especially during the difficult winter months. So, as in many of the Christmas traditions that were incorporated into the Christian canon, the custom of Hunting the Wren has its origins in a vague and ancient past. In the ‘Golden Bough’, James Frazer makes this point precisely, stating:
‘The worshipful animal is killed with special solemnity once a year; and before or immediately after death he is promenaded from door to door, that each of his worshipers may receive a portion of the divine virtues that are supposed to emanate from the dead or dying god. Religious processings of this sort must have had a great place in the ritual of European peoples in prehistoric times, if we may judge from the numerous traces of them which have survived in folk custom.’
And a study of the wren hunting customs of Celtic Europe do seem to focus on the sun and its ‘rebirth’, whether they be in England, Ireland, Northern France and the Isle of Man. The tradition in Wales follows much the same format as elsewhere, with the collecting of wrens on St Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day, and either killing them or capturing them in a much decorated ‘wren house’, an ‘elor’ or ‘bier’. Men, often in fanciful dress, would go from door-to-door with the captured wren, and be given food and drink for their efforts. The focus on St Stephen’s day seems to indicate the ‘Christianisation’ of the custom, as happened to other Winter Solstice traditions. There is a tradition that the martyrdom of St Stephen was as a result of his hiding place being revealed by the singing of a wren. In Ireland, the singing of the wren revealed the position of Christian Irish soldiers to their heathen Viking enemy.
The Rev. Silvan Evans, and quoted by Elias Owen in ‘Welsh Folk Lore’, described the tradition thus:
‘Something similar to the ‘hunting of the wren’ was not unknown to the Principality as late as about a century ago, or later. In the Christmas holidays it was the custom of a certain number of young men, not necessarily boys, to visit the abodes of such couples as had been married within the year. The order of the night—for it was strictly a nightly performance—was to this effect. Having caught a wren, they placed it on a miniature bier made for the occasion, and carried it in procession towards the house which they intended to visit. Having arrived they serenaded the master and mistress of the house under their bedroom window with the following doggerel:—
Os yw e’n fyw,
Neu dderyn tô
I gael ei rostio.
Here is the wren,
If he is alive,
Or a sparrow
To be roasted.
If they could not catch a wren for the occasion, it was lawful to substitute a sparrow (ad eryn tô). The husband, if agreeable, would then open the door, admit the party, and regale them with plenty of Christmas ale, the obtaining of which being the principal object of the whole performance.’
Hunting the Wren has often been thought to have been a Pembrokeshire tradition, but in actual fact it was to be found in all parts of Wales. Certainly, most of the recorded history of the custom is to be found in south east Wales, including many of the songs that would be sung by the participants. There are however, variations of the song that were sung in North Wales, and, like the custom of Mari Lwyd, involve a challenge or question, followed by a response, sometimes humorous.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Going to the woods’
‘What will you do there?’
‘We’ll hunt the wren’
‘Where will you find him?’
‘Under a bush’
‘How will you get him home?’
‘With horse and cart’
‘How will you cook him?’
‘In a big pan’
And so on.
The tradition of Mari Lwyd was a curious one, to say the least. The custom involved the carrying of a horse’s skull atop a decorated pole door to door by a group, challenging the occupants of a home to a contest of verse. Sometimes a member of the group would wear the horse’s skull, along with an elaborate costume.
The tradition was highly ritualised, with the group first singing a melody of traditional songs, as a means of issuing the challenge. The challenge thus thrown down and accepted by the homeowner would initiate the contest, or ‘pwnco’. This involved the member of the Mari Lwyd group and the homeowner good naturedly insulting each other, ostensibly focusing on their singing and rhyming skills. If the Mari Lwyd member was felt to have won, then the group would be rewarded with drink and food, before leaving and moving on the next household.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the contest gained a poor reputation, since it involved copious amounts of alcohol which led to all manner of trouble within communities. During the 19th century, the tradition was effectively banned by the chapel communities. However, in some cases, rather than banning the tradition, it was simply changed, and instead of battles of verses, rather tamer carols were sung.
If the banning of the tradition was unsurprising, so too is its revival amongst the university students of Aberystwyth.
A Christmas tradition in North Wales homes was Noson Gyflaith, or Toffee Evening. During Christmas celebrations, members of a household and perhaps their wider circle of friends and family used to gather together to make merry, singing and playing games. They would also make Christmas toffee. It was also made during the evening before attending the Plygain service, since few would go to bed before the early morning event.
The toffee would be made to a traditional recipe, and while still warm, the participants would cover their hands in butter and ‘pull’ the toffee. The aim was to create a toffee that was golden yellow in colour, and could be something of a chaotic affair, with plenty of mess and laughter and, since there was most certainly a knack to it, some teasing and banter to.
Rather helpfully, The National Museum of Wales has recorded the traditional method of making the Gyflaith, which is included below.
You will need
• two pounds black treacle
• two pounds golden syrup
• two pounds granulated sugar
• one pound butter
1. Put all the ingredients in a large saucepan (enamel or copper) and melt slowly over a moderate heat.
2. Then boil the mixture briskly for about twenty minutes, stirring it continuously.
3. Test its consistency at the end of the twenty minutes by dropping a teaspoonful of the boiling mixture into cold water.
4. If it hardens at once leaving the water perfectly clear it has boiled to the required degree.
5. Remove from the heat and pour the boiling toffee on to a stone slab or shallow dish, previously greased with butter.
6. Butter both hands and ‘pull’ the toffee into long golden strands while hot.
7. Cut into smaller pieces before the toffee hardens.
The end of the old year and the beginning of the new was a traditionally important time and has been celebrated for many thousands of years. January is believed by many to have been named after the Roman god, Janus, who represented endings, doorways, gates and transitions, and is depicted as having two heads, faces backwards and forwards, towards both the old and the new.
All the nations of the United Kingdom and Ireland enjoyed their own customs for the celebration of the new year, but unsurprisingly, many owed a semblance of familiarity. In Wales, as in other parts of Britain, the first person to enter a household after midnight on the 1st January was important. If that person had red hair, then bad luck for the year would follow. Similarly, if the first visitor was a woman, bad luck would be had. Better that a dark-haired man was to be the first to enter a household, and one can imagine such fellows being more than popular at New Year’s, and possibly suffering considerable hangovers for some days afterwards.
Other Welsh traditions at New Year’s involved the cancellation of all debts and the belief that should you lend an item to someone on New Year’s Day, you would be plagued with bad luck for the rest of the year. It was also believed that a person’s behaviour on New Year’s Day was a good indication as to their temperament for the following year. Given the state of many on the 1st January, it would go some way to explaining the prevalent in-grained miserableness of many throughout the year.
‘pader na pilgeint na gosber’
Black Book of Carmarthen (early - mid 13th century)
A tradition that was once an important part of Christmas Day celebrations has recently been revived in certain areas of North East Wales, and remains strong in other parts of the nation. The Plygain Service was traditionally held on Christmas Day morning, sometime between 3am and 6am. The word Plygain would suggest a cock crowing, a traditional indication that dawn has arrived. The celebrants would often stay awake throughout the night, and depending on whether you lived in the country or in the town, spent the hours before the service in a number of ways.
In rural areas, people would often make toffee, Noson Gyflaith and decorate their homes with winter foliage such as holly and mistletoe, as is recorded in Marford in Wrexham County. Hester Thrale wrote in her diary that the people of the Vale of Clwyd would spend the hours before Plygain making merry, singing and playing the harp.
Lloc was noted for its three chapels, proudly non-conformist. Sion Lloc Chapel maintains its traditional 6am Christmas morning Plygain service.
In the towns, there was a tradition of street parties, in which crowds would light torches, sing and dance and blow cow horns, before forming a ceremonial procession to the parish church. In some areas, rather than torches, candles were lit and carried to the church. Indeed, candles were an important part of Plygain, wherever it was celebrated.
Special variations of candles were often created for the celebration. Called, canhwyllau plygain, these were often created by local chandlers. They would often be fixed with coloured paper, and would be carried into the church and affixed to the pews, illuminating the church spectacularly. In an age before electric lighting and even with the later rather greasy lighting of gas lamps, one can imagine the impact of this celebration in the small hours of Christmas morning. And there would have doubtless been a spiritual aspect to this celebration, given the association of Jesus as the ‘Light of the World’. Still, high spirits and naked flames could also be a recipe for disaster - the burning down of the north nave of St Mary's at Cilcain in 1532 is a reminder.
‘Now the church is in a blaze, now crammed, body, aisles, gallery, now Shon Robert, the club-footed shoemaker, and his wife, descending from the singing seat to the lower and front part of the gallery, strike up alternately, and without artificial aid of pitch pipe, the long, long carol and old favourite describing the Worship of Kings and of the Wise Men, and the Flight into Egypt, and the terrible wickedness of Herod. The crowds are wholly silent and rapt in admiration. Then the good Rector, and his curate, David Pugh, stand up, and read the Morning Service abbreviated, finishing with the prayer for All Conditions of Men, and the benediction restless and somewhat surging is the congregation during prayers the Rector obliged sometimes to stop short in his office and look direct at some part or persons, but no verbal admonishment. Prayers over, the singers begin again more carols, new singers, old carols in solos, duets, trios, choruses, then silence in the audience, broken at appropriate pauses by the suppressed hum, of delight and approval, till between eight and nine, hunger telling on the singers, the Plygain is over and the Bells strike out a round peal.’
William Payne, in a description quoted by the National Museum of Wales
The Plygain Service itself was notable for its carols. There was, and still is in many communities, a strong carol singing tradition in North Wales. Curiously, the Plygain carols were not the simple hymns of the English tradition which we are familiar with today, but incorporated verses on the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, as well as the birth of Christ. There would seem to have been a tradition of writing specific Plygain carols, in the Protestant tradition, from the 16th century onwards, perhaps coinciding with the translation of the Bible into Welsh at the end of the 16th century by Salesbury and Morgan. Writers such as Huw Morys, Jonathan Huws and Thomas Williams wrote carols for the Plygain service that at their core owed much to a folk tradition. Some of these Plygain carols were so specific that they incorporated local homes and farms into their titles. At its heart then, the Plygain service was tailored to each community in which it was held.
There was often little or no planning of the service, being entirely in the hands of the carollers themselves, groups of men standing and moving forward to sing the carols, since until recently only men sung at the Plygain Service. Even today, ‘Carol y Swper’ is still only sung by men. It was considered a point of pride that a carol would never be repeated in a service, and given that these services would often last for two hours, this was a considerable effort. In some communities, such as at Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, a full communion was offered and sermons were given.
The Protestant tradition of the Plygain Service seems to have ensured its longevity through to the 19th century. It even survived the non-conformism of the chapel tradition of the 19th century, though there is evidence that it changed somewhat in character. What did for Plygain, it seems, was the later Victorian tradition of celebrating Christmas at home, in family groups, rather than as communities. By the end of the 19th century, Plygain was in a steep decline, although unlike many ancient Welsh traditions it never really expired entirely, but hung on in isolated communities, like Glam Rock or Rick Astley, awaiting an inevitable recrudescence.
The Tanad Valley Plygain - Commemorative stamp from 1986, designed by Lynda Gray
Plygain services can still be attended in many areas of Wales, but are more common in the eastern areas of the country and on the Shropshire border. However, Lloc in Flintshire remains famous for its Plygain tradition. A service has been held at the Sion Lloc Chapel at 6am for over 200 years and remains very popular.
To watch a short documentary on Plygain, click here.