Drive around any town or village in Wales in December and you’ll see Christmas lights, trees and carol singers just like anywhere else in the UK. But we do things a little differently too!
Many traditions date back to pre-Christian times but have come to be celebrated around Christmas. Some of these are making a bit of a comeback, too. So what’s different about how we celebrate Christmas in Wales? Let’s find out.
In the US he’s Santa Claus. In the UK he’s Father Christmas. Here in Wales you’ll hear children and parents refer to Sion Corn. A literal translation of Sion Corn is Jack of the Chimney, which makes sense but doesn’t sound particularly festive. Just like Father Christmas and Santa Claus, however, Sion Corn visits the homes of well-behaved children on Christmas Day with presents.
He’s pretty switched-on for a jolly fellow who flies round the sky with his sleigh and reindeer, and even has his own Twitter account! Follow Sion Corn @SantaCymraeg and see if you can pick up a little Welsh while you’re there.
Christmas Day sing-song: Plygain
Here’s a tradition with roots that pre-date Christian times. Plygain involves the singing of carols in rural churches in the dark of night.
The carols were usually unaccompanied by music and featured three or four part harmonies. The singing could last three hours or so, until the first cockerel crowed. Plygain has since become associated with the small hours of Christmas Day.
The Welsh songs are typically sung in full heart. Remarkably, the tradition still thrives in parts of mid-Wales where songs have been passed down from generation to generation.
You can watch an archive clip of Plygain in the 1960s.
Taffy – a Christmas Eve custom
This ‘Taffy’ has nothing to do with the derogatory nickname given to Welsh people. For taffy, think toffee!
During the long, dark hours of Christmas Eve night, while everyone waited for Sion Corn to visit and the Plygain service, Welsh families would make delicious taffy. Christmas Eve even became known as Noson Gyflaith or “toffee evening.”
Toffee was boiled in pans on open fires, but unlike in England where it was then poured into a tin and left to set hard and brittle, Welsh taffy was pulled repeatedly into long strands which meant it stayed softer, more chewy and creamy. The pulling of taffy was regarded as a fine skill.
Superstition played a role too, with some believing that the strands would spell out the initials of your true love. Awww!
Mari Lwyd – the grey mare that brings good luck
Now this might all seem a little creepy, but it’s more about mischief and fun. Around Christmas time you might hear a knock at your door and be challenged to trade rhyming insults by someone wearing the skull head of a horse. That’s the Grey Mare, or Mari Lwyd, another pre-Christian custom that’s still acted out in parts of Wales and practiced by a few determined to maintain the custom.
In Celtic mythology a horse is a symbol of power, prowess and fertility. White or grey coloured animals have the ability to cross between this world and the next. The grey mare is therefore a powerful figure.
The custom continues whereby Mari Lwyd is allowed to enter the house, sing songs with the family and share in food and drink. She brings good luck to the household and scares away any bad spirits. Wearing the skull of a horse’s head? We’re not surprised!
Drink from the wassail bowl
In the same way as we celebrate Christmas by drinking punch and mulled wine (ahem, among other alcoholic beverages…), so it was the tradition in Wales to drink from the wassail bowl.
The word Wassail actually comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’ which means ‘good health’. The bowl itself often had several handles and featured an elaborate design. It was filled with sugar, fruit, spices and topped up with warm beer. Mmmmm!.
When you took a drink from the wassail bowl it was customary to wish for a successful year’s farming.
We’re not suggesting you may come across these customs in North Wales this Christmas. But they were commonplace here once. Who knows? Maybe they’ll return to popularity some day.
Nadolig Llawen / Merry Christmas!
Sion Corn at Llyn Padarn Railway, by Hefin Owen and shared under Creative Commons License